Gravity Was Terrible (Part One)
You've probably noticed how timely we are around here.
In keeping with that tradition, I present to you my review of Gravity, a week after the Oscars.
Tomorrow, part two, and after that, shorter reviews. I promise.
Gravity was Terrible
Part One: Weak as Women’s Magic
"Hard SF" isn't my thing. For me, fiction is about people (and maybe other living things too - I'm going to use people here, with apologies to moss, spiders and Vulcans). Narrative is the special domain of living things, and I see no point in forcing factual explication into the narrative structure. That said, writing about people is hard, just as writing about technical concepts is hard. Both require specialized knowledge, perhaps some aptitude underpinning mere experience. You have to get people, even if - especially if - you're working with reductions, archetypes, pure forms. You can't, for instance, have a woman's subconscious speak to her in the form of a man and not justify it somehow. You have to know how people might actually react in a particular circumstance, or be able to speculate believably. You should know that nobody has one and only one piece of baggage, only one relationship, only one loss which sits at the center of their being, overriding all other thought and emotion in the face of death. Or, if you disagree, you should be able to show why, to separate that experience out as peculiar - not present it as normal, particularly when it runs aground of so many stereotypes and underestimations of a group to which that character belongs.
And yet, this film does all of those things.
It also fails structurally, in terms of identity and vision, essentially being two very different movies with two sets of priorities. It fails, at least moderately, from a scientific perspective as well, though that doesn't really bother me much. I admit to scowling dubiously at various things while watching, but that's a function of pedantry, a sort of bullet-counting that doesn't represent my real concerns. Real scientists have tackled these issues elsewhere (everywhere elsewhere, it seems), so I won't worry over them. But the long and short of it is that Gravity was terrible.
The film's character issues are two-prong: the generalized failure to portray a fully-realized human character, and the particular failure to portray a woman responsibly. I'm going to approach the latter first, because it's more important. Though people are real, characters arguably are not, and failing to write them well doesn't do any damage to people as a whole. Women are real, though, and every shitty portrayal is a setback when there is still such an imbalance in the portrayals we see.
In Bullock's character, Cuarón gives us a bumbling, incompetent woman who is utterly unprepared for even those events which occur even before any disaster. The only relationship she even hints at, the only loss, is that of a child. It is so central one might almost forget that, were she real, she would probably have parents, a friend perhaps, maybe a romance or two. But no, she gets one relationship, and guess what? It's maternal. Imagine that.
This woman is a doctor, a scientist who has done work notable enough to get her into space. That's identity-level stuff, stuff that is almost always central to the experience of an individual. It's a lifetime of work, of interest and aptitude and dedication. However painful losing a child might be, the assumption that it would override every element of identity - how is that not problematic? The woman I watched the film with said it well - "If it had been a man, that never would have been his 'thing.'" And even if it were, it would certainly not be rolled out as the totality of his person.
Let's consider just such a counterexample: Duncan Jones' fantastic space-tragedy Moon. Rockwell's character, Sam, misses his family (a robust family, comparatively, containing a wife and daughter) - but also struggles foremost with personal issues. His conflict with his co-clone is about precisely that - the magnification, using the tools of genre, of that internal conflict. In a film where only one actor appears on camera (the others merely voice or, at most, a fuzzy image on a tiny screen), Moon manages no less than six separate relationships. Six.
Even in Cuarón's own Children of Men, which does feature a father whose loss of a child is a considerable part of his downward spiral, it is only a part. We see his loss come from elsewhere, too - from the world around him, from the loss of his wife, from the death of his friend.
There's been the expected and unfortunate apologism, mostly boiling down to "sure there are problems, but it's still a win!" The mindset for such folks seems to be that a little feminism is better than none at all. Let's be clear - half of a feminist message is a sexist message. In fact, there's no such thing as half a feminist message. Cuarón may mean well, may be trying to do good; this is, as it has always been, immaterial. The film fails in its portrayal of women. It shows us, in a culture where we see so little else, a weak, incompetent woman whose very redemption must be delivered to her in the form of a man.
That is what happened there, by the way - it wasn't magic or something supernatural. No, what happened was worse by a mile: some element of her psyche manifested itself to save her, and that element was George Clooney. With all those long years behind her, no other image was forthcoming, least of all an image of herself. In the constellation of her qualities - maternity-defined, wrecked by emotion, incompetent, ready-to-die - only one part raised a hand in protest. Only one part objected to her death. Only one part was strong, resourceful, recollected technical data and was clear headed enough to make use of it, and that part was a man.
Fuck. That. Shit.
If there's a non-sexist reason for all the "women problems" here, it is invisible, and if it's invisible in the film, it doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned. Cuarón may have ideas, reviewers may have interpretations, but those are external. At best this makes the film an artistic failure, at worst it is a cheap way to avoid making art consistent with your ideas, or at least making it well. In a medium with so many tools to communicate ideas to the audience, there's no excuse for not making something clear if it matters to you. What is clear here is that it didn't matter to Cuarón. That's what the absence of justification means.