I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t immediately drawn to watching a movie about Sandra Bullock trapped in space. In general, I’m not a huge fan of movies that feature spacecraft (APOLLO 13 and ALIEN excepted.) For this reason, I came to GRAVITY with a groan and a sigh.
However, it was a huge surprise to me that I turned the movie on, and within ten minutes, was shaking and tearing up. My son looked at me and said the teenaged equivalent of, “Oh for Christ’s sake…” and left the room.
Maybe it’s my time of life, or being in a place of having to let go as I move into the next chapter, but this movie floored me.
Yes, the film has its clunky moments (it’s hard to deliver exposition when your main character is floating around all by herself,) but the film is also moving, beautifully structured, and has what we always shoot for in storytelling—a clean, elegant narrative spine.
Whether you’re writing a screenplay, fiction or memoir, there’s a lesson to be learned here about the value of a simple and clear emotional journey for the main character.
SPOILER ALERT! I’m about to reveal the entire plot of the movie. (Sorry if I make mistakes in describing the space equipment. Not my forte.)
Here’s how the action breaks down in three acts….
ORDINARY WORLD—We open in outer space. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Shariff (Phaldut Sharma,) are all floating outside their ship, the Explorer. Ryan’s feeling sick, and while she repairs the external communications card, we get some chitchat about the fact that they are all going home tomorrow. (Film lovers, we all know what this means, right? “You’re all gonna die!”) Kowalski loves to tell long-winded stories. Shariff is messing around, giggling, doing flips in space. All is well.
INCITING INCIDENT—Exactly ten minutes in, Mission Control tells them they have to abort the mission immediately and get inside the ship. Satellite debris is heading their way and all their communications are about to go down. Ryan tries to finish what she’s doing but Kowalski drags her toward Explorer’s entrance.
Before they can get inside, BAM– the debris hits! Ryan’s tether is disconnected from the ship, she spins away from the craft, no one has a visual of her and her GPS is down. She can’t breathe and her oxygen is depleting. She’s fully panicked. Kowalski sees her and drags her back toward the ship with his jetpack.
They discover the Explorer is destroyed and everyone else (including Shariff) is dead. Kowalski says their only chance is to head to a nearby space station.
As they travel, using his jetpack to move in the right direction, they talk. We find out that Ryan had a daughter who died when she was four, and there’s no one else in her life who really cares about her. Her oxygen is almost gone and Kowalski uses the last spurt from his jet pack to get them to the station. As they both try to grab onto the ship, they tumble. Ryan’s leg gets caught on some rope, which holds her to the station, but Kowalski starts drifting away. She grabs his tether so he stays connected to her. He sees that the ropes holding her leg are loose, and that if she doesn’t let go of him, he’ll pull her out into space. He tells her to let go. She refuses.
ACT I TURNING POINT (32 minutes in)—Kowalski detaches from her, saying, “You’re gonna make it Ryan.” He floats away.
Ryan is now completely alone outside the ship. Through his communication device, Kowalski guides her verbally toward the airlock. He tells her to board the shuttle and go to the Chinese space station nearby. Once there, she can take the Soyuz, which is designed to go back to earth. She says she can’t drive it. Every time she tried in simulation she crashed. She says she’s going to come get him. He says, “You need to learn how to let go.”
She’s losing consciousness because she’s breathing C02, but makes it to the airlock and climbs inside. The station is destroyed, but there’s oxygen. She finds the Communications Center and tries to talk to Kowalski but gets nothing. She tries again. Silence.
She says into the microphone, “I am Dr. Ryan Stone, the sole survivor.”
Suddenly, an alarm goes off and there’s a FIRE! As she tries to get away from it, the flames follow her and to escape it, she seals herself in the small shuttle. If she gets to the Chinese station, she can make it. She reads the instructions, and separates the shuttle from the space station. But she discovers that the shuttle is caught on some parachute rigging, which holds it tied to the station. The station is starting to destruct and she’ll be destroyed too if she can’t disengage the shuttle.
Frantically, she goes outside the spacecraft to free it. More satellite debris keeps coming at her (see how the writer creates constant obstacles and conflict?) The station gets slammed and now really starts to fall apart. She is barely able to climb inside the shuttle to save herself. The shuttle is released from the crumbling station.
MIDPOINT (57 minutes in) Floating away from the disintegrating station, she desperately tries to get the shuttle started, but it’s dead. She’s got nothing. She’s just floating in space.
It’s clear she’s going to die.
BIG GLOOM— Ice begins to form on the windows, she’s freezing. She gets radio reception, tries to talk to the person on the other end, but he doesn’t speak her language. She realizes the transmission is coming from earth. She hears the man’s baby cry and he sings to it. She talks to him, says, “No one will mourn for me.” She says she’s never prayed in her life. She asks him to pray for her and then says, “I hope I see my baby soon.”
Accepting her death, Ryan shuts things down inside the capsule, turns down the dials, the oxygen, everything. She takes off her cap, and shuts her eyes. She wants the foreign guy to sing her to sleep.
She wants to die.
ACT II TURNING POINT— As she slips into unconsciousness, suddenly, there’s a frantic knock on the window. It’s Kowalski, he’s found her and is going to save her. He comes inside and start to power up the shuttle.
She tells him to go away. He forces her to try. She asks him how he survived and he says, “That’s a long story.”
He tells her what she has to do. She asks, “What’s the point of going on?” He looks into her eyes and says, “Your kid died. That’s rough. But you have to go home.”
Suddenly, he’s gone.
Ryan slowly turns on the oxygen. She reads the manual, tries the module separation. It works. She starts talking to Kowalski (who’s been dead this whole time, natch.) She tells him to give her little girl a hug. And to let her know that her mommy loves her and misses her. “Tell her I’m not quitting.”
RACE TO THE CLIMAX— She presses the boosters. They work. They get the shuttle to right outside the Chinese station. Inside is the Soyuz, her last chance for a ride home. She exits the shuttle and uses a fire extinguisher as a booster to get her closer to the station. The Chinese station is moving toward the atmosphere and is going to self-destruct. She has very little time. (lots of great ticking clocks in this movie!)
She grabs onto the ship, enters, and gets to the escape pod inside. The station is coming apart around her.
CLIMAX— She steps into the pod. The one she was never able to successfully land in simulation. As she activates the pod, she tells a story out loud. There are two outcomes—she’ll make it, or burn up. Either way, she’s ready.
She puts her helmet on. The station destructs, she spins and breaks the modules of her water landing craft apart like she’s supposed to.
She races toward earth, the capsule around her on fire.
She lets go.
She’s racing, burning, her parachute deploys, but there’s a fire inside the capsule. She slams down on the water. Houston is suddenly talking to her, “Please confirm your identity. Please confirm your identity!”
She has to get out of the capsule. She opens the door, but water rushes in and she starts to drown. The capsule is going down. She’s trapped inside as the capsule is pulled down to the bottom of the ocean (See how she has to face death one more time? This is the moment of Resurrection in The Hero’s Journey.)
Finally, she escapes the capsule, and underwater, rips off her space suit and swims to the surface.
BRIEF RESOLUTION— She makes it, gasps for breath and stares up at the blue sky. She’s never prayed before, but now says, “Thank you.”
Slowly, she swims to shore, stands up, and barely able, begins to walk.
What’s interesting about the structure of this movie is that the events between the midpoint and the Big Gloom are really compressed. Usually, the Big Gloom at the end of ACT II is a series of events. In this film, she gives up pretty fast. Then comes the Kowalski fake out for the ACT II Turning Point. I, by the way, wasn’t faked out. I knew he was dead, that she was hallucinating, but it didn’t lessen the power of the moment for me. He is there as a voice from beyond, giving her faith, urging her to try one more time (a common occurrence at this point in the story, where the hero is about to give up, but a mentor appears to give them new courage.)
GRAVITY has a simple arc for its main character. At the beginning, she’s holding on the to death of her daughter and it’s isolated her from others. At the end, she lets go of this, and is truly able come back to the world.
TAKE ACTION! Think about the story you are working on. What is your main character’s emotional journey? How can you make it primal, deep and UNCOMPLICATED?
Do you reveal this journey clearly through action?
If you want to read the GRAVITY script, here’s the link! (Special thanks to GO INTO THE STORY)