A New Grammar for Science Fiction

Science Fiction is no longer a novelty.

We do not want to read Science Fiction because it is set in the future. Science Fiction must offer some deeper, truer view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.


Gravity Was Awesome!

My partner, Nathaniel K Miller has quite forcefully argued that Gravity is terrible film. I find myself in the awkward situation of having enjoyed the movie quite a bit, so while I won’t expend as much effort as Nathaniel, I’d like to defend my position a bit, if I might.

Yes, I agree that Gravity has some fundamental problems. After all it doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel test, and Bullocks’ character is probably what EM Forster would have called “flat.” But none of those flaws explain why I enjoyed this movie so much.

So, how do I defend a movie that clearly suffers from sexist stereotypes while still flexing my PC cred? Well I’d start by suggesting that we live in a sexist culture and so most products of that culture (advertising, narratives, etc etc) will suffer some residual sexism because of the culture that produced them.  We should absolutely do more to combat reductive, sexist stereotypes in our culture. But is it fair that every role played by a woman becomes a metric which measures discrimination?

To the specifics of Nathaniel’s criticism:

“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.”

Funny, I didn’t have any problem relating to Bullocks’ character. I found the death of her daughter to be a powerful part of her backstory, and, as a parent, it hit really close to home. Perhaps the whole “death of a kid” thing is cliche, perhaps it’s more powerful once you have a kid of your own, regardless I thought it worked.

“However painful losing a child might be, the assumption that it would override every element of identity - how is that not problematic?”

Well that may be problematic, as it renders Bullocks as a mother first and foremost. But, again, as a parent, this part of the story rang true. In fact losing a child is precisely the kind of life-changing event that forever alters your being (or so I have to imagine). In fact, this is where I thought the movie worked: the character’s emotional state is made literal. She is without direction, drifting in a black void. To me this was a convincing depiction of loss. Was it reductive? Probably a little, but it didn’t bother me. And in fact I found Bullocks’ overcoming of this lack of motivation rather moving.

“"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.”

Oh no? Go back and watch “Wargames” my friend. There are lots of male characters defined by the loss of a son or daughter.

But the second problem is with Bullocks’ character’s incompetence:

“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.”

While this characterization is problematic, it’s also necessary. Since we sympathize with Bullocks’ character she must take an attitude towards space work that we can relate to. If she were to be an expert at all space-related stuff then we wouldn’t be able to feel a connection to her. We haven’t been to space and so we need a novice we can relate to on the screen. Too much expertise and suddenly we’re no longer connected to the action because we don’t know how to sympathize.

So maybe the main character shouldn’t be a woman. But that doesn’t work either. Women are underrepresented as heroes in modern movie making and a woman who triumphs over natural forces is even rares (Helen Hunt in “Twister” comes to mind). So, yes, Bullocks’ character is flat and reductive. But if that’s your criticism, it doesn’t just apply to “Gravity” but to every Hollywood blockbuster with flat characters and predictable action.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this movie and felt like it encapsulated the unbelievable potential Science Fiction has for literalizing the figurative. Here Bullocks’ directionless drift following the loss of her daughter is given literal dimensions as we see her floating in the inky blackness of space. I found it moving and intense. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t also see the flaws Nathaniel has so clearly enunciated, but that I forgave the movie its flaws because I enjoyed it so much.