Characterization Case Study: Gravity

originalThe best way to study characterization and plot is to look at examples, both good and bad, and to note what worked and what didn’t.  I’m going to do a quick case study of the recent movie Gravity.  It’s an interesting movie that (due to a very small cast and a rather linear plot) can be analyzed with relative ease.  As a quick disclaimer: this is not a movie review and it will hold some spoilers.  As a secondary disclaimer: I enjoyed the movie, the music, special effects, science and plot were all relatively well grounded and a lot of fun… but I’m going to dissect the characters in the movie as examples of good and bad characterization. 

First things first, a look at characterization.  There are really only two characters in the movie: Stone and Kowalski.  The movie does an excellent job right away to establish Kowalski as a cowboy, right down to his music selection as he bounces around the hubble telescope on his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit).  He’s excited to be where he is, cocky, and clearly knows what he’s doing.  Throughout the rest of his (brief) stint in opening part of the movie, this is all we really see of Kowalski.  Stone on the other hand, is more difficult to characterize.  At first, she is totally focused on her work.  Later when things begin to go wrong, she panics.  We learn that she doesn’t want to die, that she is afraid, and that she really doesn’t seem to like space.

This last was the part that broke characterization for me.  The way things are now, if someone isn’t totally dedicated and driven to become an astronaut, they won’t even stand a chance.  It doesn’t matter what your background is or how important your mission, you can always train someone else.  There are millions of applicants and countless intelligent people willing to learn whatever skills it takes to go to space, they won’t want someone who doesn’t want to be there.

But then Kowalski shows up to save Stone.  The two learn that they are the only survivors from the shuttle and both deal with it in their own ways.  Kowalski becomes professional and reverts to an almost military mode.  From the perspective of characterization, this is excellent.  We see the other side of a character, and we see that his cowboy persona is just one facet of a more complex person.  Stone just sort of shuts down.  She says that she’s low on oxygen, she doesn’t volunteer any information, and at several points, tells Kowalski that he should leave her, that she’s slowing him down.  This, frankly, makes her character seem rather dull.  In the initial panic and worry of the disaster, we are immediately sympathetic to her character.  She is adrift and struggles to survive, we want to root for her.  Her giving up after being found and rescued by Kowalski gives away a lot of that initial viewer sympathy.  No one likes a quitter, and the apathy that she begins to show about her own death makes her character seem very bland and hard to identify with.

Then, in typical survival mode, Kowalski asks Stone about where she is from, if she has anyone who waits for her back home, if she likes her job and what she does after work.  This is the perfect moment in a book for the viewer to identify with a character.  You learn about the details of their life, the things that guided them and shaped them.  The scene could not have been framed better, with only the two characters, tethered by a single cable and with the entire Earth as a backdrop.  Literally, they’re the only two people who exist, with no other distractions… and Stone takes a right turn to depression.  Stone doesn’t have a family, she had a daughter who died in an accident.  She apparently doesn’t have parents, siblings, or any romantic interest at all either.  In fact she seems to have no reason to go on living.  She concludes her brief explanation with a statement that she ‘just drives.’  She seems to be a woman with no reason left to live… so why exactly is she in space?  Please, tell me that her device would prevent future falling accidents such as the one that killed her daughter or cure cancer or at least give her some goal or drive to base her life upon.  Give me something, I want to root for these characters.  They’re in a disaster with miniscule odds of survival, I want to think that their lives mean something.

The two characters reach their destination, but in true movie fashion, the EMU (rather like a jetpack) runs out of fuel in the last seconds.  The two tumble and scramble for a hold, and in the end, Stone is tangled in some line attached to the station and Kowalski is attached to Stone by the tether.  Of course, the cables are slipping and there is too much mass for the friction of the cables to overcome.  Kowalski says that he’s going to cut himself loose, and explains to Stone what she’ll have to do to survive.  This is a pivotal moment in both character’s story arcs.  The cowboy/professional mission commander sacrifices himself (showing yet another side of himself) while the frightened and confused Doctor Stone has to come out and shine, to find her internal strength and succeed despite the odds.  Frankly, I think it was a bit heavy-handed.  The scene could have played out more true to Kowalski’s character if done in a split-second decision, rather than as it played out… a long and agonizing moment for Stone.  They did it more for plot reasons than characterization, I think.  They set up Stone without the tools to survive so they wanted Kowalski to give her those.  Given the amount of time they had, and the way they established Kowalski’s character, I think it more likely he would have attempted something dramatic to save them both.  However, clearly the story they wanted to explore was Stone’s growth, even if Kowalski was the more interesting character.

Stone then follows Kowalski’s guidance.  As an added threat, besides the debris that moves faster than any Earth-bound bullet, the station catches fire.  Because, really, Stone needed something to get her to get moving again.  Stone begins step two of three towards her return to earth and then discovers that her ride to the next stop is out of fuel.  This would be a perfect time for her to show her internal strength and that drive to survive.  Instead, she tries to reach someone, anyone, for help.  In the end, after a tearful conversation with some chinese guy with a dog and a baby, she decides that she doesn’t want to wait another ninety minutes for the debris to hit her yet again, she’ll just turn down the air and go to sleep.

Okay, I’m sorry, but while the plot of the movie had me hooked, at this point I just stopped caring about the character of Doctor Stone.  She has no family, no goals, no dreams, no ambition… she’s survived to this point because she doesn’t want to die and because someone we did care about sacrificed himself so that she would have a chance.  Honestly, I come back to the whole question: why is Doctor Ryan Stone here in space and who chose the hardest person in the world to identify with to be the survivor?

Cue the return of Mission Commander Kowalski.  His snarky comments and upbeat words breathe some life into Stone just before the obvious reveal that he was a figment of her subconscious as her brain shut down from lack of oxygen.  Luckily, she realizes she does have a way to survive after all, and goes about it.  She seems to have decided to live because Kowalski wanted her to, which in itself is something, at least.  Do it for the dead guy, it works in sports movies for a reason, and it at least gives us a reason why the lone survivor doesn’t just die.

As far as characterization, that concludes the entire movie.  We get a brief moment at the end where Stone stands up on the beach, somewhere on Earth and walks away.  This seems more a statement of survival than anything more profound.  In fact, the character of Doctor Stone doesn’t really seem to draw any closure.  She survives, which closes out the plot, but we don’t have any way to see what she has become, or even if she has changed at all.  What will drive her, after her survival, what will she do and who will she become afterwards?  These question remain unanswered, which, as a viewer I would find supremely irritating… except I really didn’t care at that point.  Stone was just the point of view for the ride, and I could walk away without any of those questions being answered.

Hopefully my fellow writers can take away some lessons from this.  I know I did, the biggest being that if you create a character that doesn’t care about themselves… your audience wont either.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a disaster, but the rest of your product, book, movie or game, will have to make up for that in other areas.

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2 thoughts on “Characterization Case Study: Gravity”

  1. Great Post. I thought the scene when Stone told Kowalski about her life was artificial. In the work place we get to know our co-workers. Astronauts aren’t normal co-workers, they spend days and days working along side each other and he would have known her daughter had passed away. He was a guy who liked women (implied) and he would have known her social status. I did not like that scene at all, I think a better way to do it would be for Kowalski to tell her to not talk so she could save her oxygen. Then do a quick mental flashback.

    Thank you for illustrating the points of failure for the movie. But I thought it was a great movie, even with the character issues.

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  2. Yeah, that whole scene just damaged the movie, in my opinion. I enjoyed the movie a good deal, don’t get me wrong. But with only two characters, it made the analysis of the characterization relatively easy, which is why I picked it. Overall I think they did a very good job with the movie, and I also hope that it renews some interest in space.

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