And the Oscar Goes to…: Technical Merit and Narrative Failure in GRAVITY
9 March 2014
Last weekend, Gravity earned seven Academy Awards, more than any other film in competition. Of its wins, Gravity swept the Oscar’s technical categories, suggesting that, based on how the American Academy of Motion Pictures rates films, Gravity is the strongest cinematic achievement in film from 2013. However, Gravity was not awarded best picture; 12 Years a Slave is the 2013 Academy Award winner for Best Picture (as well as Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay).
And so, the repeated banter begins…how can the most awarded film, the film that earned all the technical categories, not be the best picture of the year?
Simple. That is the way it works, generally speaking. Of Oscar’s twenty four categories, The Academy finds a way to celebrate two things simultaneously: the films with captivating cinematic prowess and the films that captivate viewers. Evidently, a film rarely achieves both. The Academy Awards ceremony celebrate films, like Gravity, that are cinematic achievements, but also recognizes that cinematic achievements usually do not find their way into viewers’ hearts. Oscar also celebrates films, like 12 Years a Slave, which rely on pre-established cinematic norms, not pushing any filmic envelope, but have plots rich in pathos, pulling the audience in to an unforgettable narrative. These captivating, unforgettable stories are what win Best Picture.
But, this suggests and interesting pattern: again, generally speaking, films that emphasize cinematics are technically successful but have underdeveloped narratives, and films that develop narratives often end up relying on the narrative instead of cinematics for their success. Gravity is a perfect example of this theory. Without question, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a cinematic accomplishment, yet its overused, predictable storyline offers nothing for viewers to invest in emotionally.
Like great directors often do, Cuaron took the bait with Gravity’s incredibly challenging screenplay: minimal cast, either claustrophobically enclosing or boundless sets, and, of course, no gravity. Cuaron, who also wrote, produced, and edited the picture, was able to create a world outside our own in the film, experimenting with camera technique (notably including first-person perspective shots and juxtaposing close-ups with extreme long shots).
Yet, from a narrative perspective, Gravity is a bust. It seems as though Gravity’s narrative is the same recycled story all survivor films are made with. Unlikely and unprepared anti-hero must rise to impossible challenges. Miraculously escaping death time after time, the anti-hero’s story always ends one of two ways: death (usually suicide) for the greater good of humanity or as lone survivor, both options designed to restore hope in viewers. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone sets out on a mission to service a space telescope. The mission is led by Matt Kowalski, an experienced astronaut, unlike Stone who has only been training for six months before this, her first, venture into space. Almost immediately, things go wrong; fast moving Russian debris circling the Earth collides with crew, destroying the ship and killing all but Stone and Kowalski. The two try making their way to the International Space Station; however, when power runs low on Kowalski’s thruster pack, only Stone makes it aboard. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), ISS has also been damaged by the circling debris, and Stone needs to get to the Chinese space station for a module capable of reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Even though she encounters all imaginable (and some unimaginable) obstacles, Stone manages to make it to the Chinese station, into the module, and back to Earth, experiencing gravity once more.
Memorable lines from Gravity go something like this, “Here we go,” “(gasp) What now?” “”I’m not quitting,” “Let’s go home,” and, a personal favorite, “It will be one hell of a ride.” Clearly, Gravity is all about technique because this dialogue is so cliché it is painful at times. And, it is not just the dialogue; it is the entire narrative structure. Of course the audience learns, shortly after the first major obstacle in the film, Stone is a grieving mother whose young daughter died tragically. When a narrative is so underdeveloped, exaggerated attempts to grab sympathy for the protagonist are a must, and Gravity completely takes advantage of this.
Moreover, every time the narrative finds itself at a dead-end, a miracle happens so the story can keep progressing. For example, Ryan Stone seems brilliant, but has absolutely no experience in space and limited knowledge of almost every spacecraft the audience sees her in. She realizes this and gives up aboard the ISS; she turns off the oxygen, attempting suicide. Just then, Kowalski, who , presumably, died earlier in the film, reemerges; he opens the door and slips right in. Kowalski encourages Stone to not give up and then tells her exactly what she must do to get back to Earth. Suddenly, Stone awakens; Kowalski’s visit was all a dream. She turns the oxygen back and begins the plan Kowalski told her to carry out. If the apparition of Kowalski had not happened, Stone would be dead, not only because she in the act of killing herself, but also because she had no idea what to do next; the plot needed to get itself out of a dead-end. And, with underdeveloped narrative, that something is often a random, unexplainable but well-timed miracle.
Another way of looking at Gravity is that time spent on the film’s cinematics came at the expense of the narrative. In the end, viewers will remember what a stunning visual spectacle the film is, but without care for the film’s characters or circumstance. And, because of that, there is no way Gravity could compete against 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture; Best Picture winners are the films with a strong narrative. Everyone who saw 12 Years a Slave remembers how emotional it was to see the true story of a free, black musician, kidnapped from his life and forced into a dozen years of brutal, inhumane servitude. Solomon Northup is finally freed in the end, but, through his ordeal, audience members take an inside look at slavery and one man’s unrelenting fight for freedom. 12 Years a Slave moves viewers in a way Gravity cannot. And so, when Oscar threw his party last week, Gravity’s cinematics were unanimously awarded, but it was not the Academy’s Best Picture.