Gravity

Sorry for the long delay between posts, but this month has been absolutely crazy for my freelancing business. I complete one assignment only for three more to pop up, still that’s no excuse for ignoring all my readers, so my apologies. Fortunately last night I took some time to myself to relax and let my fingers relax, since my writer’s cramp has progressed into writer’s rigor mortis; I went to see Gravity, and it is without a doubt the greatest movie that’s come out this year. Once again I’ll be using my patented style of analysis to systematically ruin every surprise and character arc in the movie, so if you haven’t see this please don’t read any further. This is a great movie and really deserves to be seen. For those of you who have seen it, sit back and enjoy while I take the story apart piece by piece and show you why this movie is so damn good.

Gravity: A Storyteller’s Review

And don't stop reading!
And don’t stop reading!

Gravity takes place in an alternate universe where NASA is actually funded and we’re still actively exploring space, but other than that the movie is pretty grounded in reality. I’ve heard from some sciencey-type guys that the physics of Gravity are wrong, and that some of the scenes are unrealistic but then I never was any good at mathing so I still enjoyed it. If you have Phd in Physics then either turn off your bullshit sensors or avoid this movie, nerd! 

The plot of Gravity is deceptively simple, those wacky Russians decide to blow up a satellite but accidentally trigger a chain reaction that sends a giant wave of debris smashing into the Space Shuttle Explorer and sending Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) drifting aimlessly through the upper atmosphere. Well, not entirely aimlessly as Kowalski was field testing a new jetpack of sorts that allows him to maneuver through space and attempt to survive without any outside assistance. That’s the plot, and it’s a damn good plot filled with incredibly tense moments. Except for a short scene when Dr. Ryan is inside the International Space Station, the entire movie is devoid of all sound effects and watching space debris go ripping through the space shuttle, astronauts and space stations in the movie is even eerier when there’s no sound. It’s a good plot, but that’s not why it’s a good story.

The real meat of the story is in the underlying theme, the journey of the characters and the absolutely stunning visual symbolism.

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As that not-so-subtle visual metaphor probably makes abundantly clear, this movie’s core themes are about life, death and the journey in between. The imagery, and indeed the dialogue, is sometimes a bit heavy-handed but the message it’s carrying is so good that I didn’t really mind. I’m getting a head of myself, however.

After a nail biting opening sequence, Dr. Stone and Kowalski return to the now shattered hull of the Explorer to find there are no survivors on board. Nearly every Satellite in orbit has been wiped out, cutting the pair off from Houston but Kowalski tells Dr. Stone to keep talking just in case. Ostensibly this is because someone might be listening but unable to respond to them, but the real reason is so Sandra Bullock and Kowalski can continue talking without being too unrealistic (talking consumes a lot more oxygen than just breathing.) This is a great thing because it’s Dr. Stone and Kowalski’s relationship that really make the first part of the movie fantastic, and set the stage for the later character development of Dr. Stone. Why only Dr. Stone? Well because Kowalski isn’t going to stay with us.

Butterfingers.
Oh, butterfingers…he slipped.

Kowalski does what’s necessary: he sacrifices himself rather than doom both of them. This is a powerful scene for several reasons; first because Kowalski attitude towards death gives us a glimpse at Dr. Stone’s character arc, two because it preys on the primal fear of being alone, and three, it’s a symbolic representation of life and human relationships.

Kowalski’s attitude towards his own impending doom is one of calm acceptance rather than fear and when he starts floating away into the emptiness of space, he doesn’t waste time mourning for himself or sharing his regrets. He sits back and enjoys the view, enjoying the fact that he’s finally going to be beat Anatoly Solovyev’s record for longest space walk. He uses his final words to remark on how beautiful the sunrise is as it hits the Ganges River hundred of thousands miles down. George Clooney absolutely nails this performance, to the point where you’re almost envious that the guy gets to die in the void of space cold and alone.  Dr. Stone desperately tries to keep in contact with him, but eventually he drifts out of range and Dr. Stone is completely and utterly alone, everyone’s worst nightmare.

It was watching Dr. Stone desperately clutching at the tether that made this whole scene so powerful. Relationships are a lot like that, we’re all just attached by the flimsiest of tethers and sometimes it doesn’t take much for those tethers to slip, break or be let go, and when they’re gone it’s impossible not to feel that emptiness on the other side of the tether. More to the point, it’s also a great visual metaphor for life; delicate and so easy to lose. Kowalski let go of the tether, and his life, because he had to. His fate was sealed already, and hanging on would only have killed Dr. Stone as well. Some people though, let go of the tether of life because we just don’t want to hold on to it anymore. That’s the situation Dr. Stone finds herself in after she makes it to the ISS’s escape ship and finds out the engines are out of fuel. Frustrated and exhausted she turns off the ship’s life support systems and waits for death, until Kowalski reappears.

You can't keep a good Clooney down.
You can’t keep a good Clooney down.

His speech here is amazing and I can’t remember it word for word, but it boils down to this: life is hard and painful to get through sometimes, and sometimes it gets to the point where it feels like it would just be easier to curl up and let ourselves go. I’ve been in that situation several times before, back when I was depressed and even a couple times since when the walls seem to be closing in around me; when I was kicked out of college for instance, it sometimes seemed like ending it would have been the easier option. After all, I’d raised to believe that life without college is a life not worth living, by my parents, by my teachers and by society itself. Then I returned to my first true love, my writing and I found a new career that didn’t care if I’d been kicked out of college. That’s the beauty of life, there’s always another option and that’s what Kowalski reminds Dr. Stone of. The main engines are dead, but the soft-landing jets that deploy after re-entry are still functioning. There’s still a way to get home.

Of course Kowalski isn’t really there, it was just a dream brought on by low oxygen, but the idea is real. So she fires the jets and heads toward the Chinese space station Tiangong, hoping to find a functional escape vehicle there. she succeeds but finds Tiangong falling into the atmosphere. She finds a functional escape ship, and with the station burning up around her, begins preparations to launch. Then Sandra Bullock gives us her best performance of the movie, and a speech that’ll make you want to go out there and do something crazy.

Houston, in ten minutes I’ll either be home on earth with one hell of a story to tell or I’ll burn up in the atmosphere. Either way, no harm, no foul. Because one way or the other, it’s been a hell of a ride.

It was a ride I'll never forget.
It was a ride I’ll never forget.

Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of her statement and it brought manly tears to my eyes. She let go of her fear of death, and embraced life with every fiber of her being. She stopped worrying and let life take its course; she still does everything she can to survive, but there’s no more hopelessness and no more despair, just determination and confidence. Even after all the greatness this movie gave me, it’s the ending that really secures this movie as my favorite of the year.

After an admittedly unrealistic survival and reentry, Sandra Bullocks emerges from the ocean and takes her first unsure steps on Earth. Weak from long-term exposure to Zero Gravity, her first steps are awkward and unsure, and that’s what makes this ending amazing.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, some strange sea creature made this same journey. It stepped out of the primordial oceans to take its first steps on land and ushered in a new age. Obviously it didn’t see it that way, it was just evolving to take advantage of a new environment but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is some creature with only rudimentary leg-flaps and breathing with its half-developed lungs came onto land, and though all the odds were stacked against it, it survived. More followed, and soon there was man.

Gravity reminds us not only where we came from, and what life is all about, but also where we’re going. We emerged from the seas countless eons ago, and now we’re taking our first unsure steps into the depths of space. We may have landed on the moon fifty years ago, but make no mistake, we’re still in the infancy of space travel. We’re just like that half-formed sea creature, our bodies aren’t adapted to the environment of space and its an environment filled with dangers both known and unknown, but it’s crucial we take these steps. Even when tragedies like the destruction of Challenger and Columbia strike, we have to keep moving forward. Space exploration is the future of our species, and up there we don’t have nationalities, we’re mankind united.

We have to reach the stars because no matter what we find or what setbacks we suffer…

We’ll have one hell of a story to tell, and it’ll be a hell of a ride. 

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Humor, Tragedy, and Joy

Is it just me or has it gotten dark in here recently? I’ve been talking about dark emotions, horrible things happening to good characters, and my own failures these past few months. That combined with the fact I’m ready to go Cast Away on my wisdom tooth, and you’ve got yourself one depressing blog.

You know it’s bad when you start to think this a good idea.

I think exploring our darker emotions is something that is both healthy and necessary, especially for writers, but even more important than that is enjoying the happiness in our lives. More to the point, we need to see the characters in a story happy, we need to see them at their best. Otherwise their eventual fall and misery has no impact because we never see what it is they’ve lost, and we don’t get a chance to bond and relate with the characters when they’re always miserable. If you’re a good friend, you stick with them through everything good and bad that happens to them, but let’s face it, if the first time you meet someone they act miserable and sullen, you’re not likely to strike up a friendship at all. It’s like dating, if you rush up to a woman pleading for them to love you because you’ve been alone for years, they’re more likely to run away screaming than they are to take pity on you (not that that’s from firsthand experience or anything…) but if you act confident and happy, then you’re someone people want to be around.

It’s the same for the characters in a book, if you come into a book just as miserable as when you leave…well then you’re not giving the audience a lot to work with in terms of liking and rooting for your character. You have to show us the good times and the bad, otherwise we have no frame of reference for just how bad the bad times are. If your character is a bum on the street, show us when he used to have a job or a family or even just a friend. If he’s always been alone and on the street, yeah that’s sad, but not as sad as showing us someone who has lost everything.

One of the best examples of this juxtaposition in work is Futurama. It’s a goofy comedy that combines slapstick humor with pop culture references while parodying common scifi tropes. It’s hysterical, and that’s why when they drop the emotional hammer on the audience, it often affects us way more than when the same thing happens in a straight up drama.

Shut up! I’ve just got something in my eye!

Jurassic Bark aside, it’s not hard to cry over a loyal dog after all, Futurama has managed to move me over the stupidest things. Not always to tears, sometimes it’s a little smile, a warm glow in the pit of my stomach. Because I spend most of the time laughing my ass off watching Futurama, when they start playing those metaphorical violins, it seems way sadder.

That’s not to say a story needs to be funny in order for the tragedy to come across. It also doesn’t mean that the character’s life needs to be filled with rainbows and sunshine before the fall, either. For instance Mikael Blomkvist starts out with his life in the toilet; Mikael’s newspaper has been found guilty of libel, his journalistic integrity is in ruins, and he’s pretty much broke. Yet we get glimpses of the life he lost, he has a nice apartment, his newspaper was once prominent enough that his trial was a media circus, and he has an on-and-off sexual relationship with his editor. Not everything is horrible.

Similarly, Harry Potter almost has the exact opposite juxtaposition as most dramas. He’s completely miserable at the beginning of the book, living with his horrific extended family. Throughout the first book Harry’s life gets gradually better, he finds out he’s a kickass wizard, he makes some great friends and learns how to defend himself. In fact, aside from the occasional run-in with Voldemort happy goons, Harry’s life gets better with each passing book.

That’s why when shit hits the fan in book four Goblet of Fire it comes as such a shock. Suddenly Voldemort is up and walking again, he kills Cedric and the series takes a dark and violent turn. Characters we’ve grown to love and care about start dropping like flies, and each one is like a punch right to the gut. Sirius Black, Dumbledore, and even Harry’s owl Hedwig eventually dies.

These tragedies have real weight specifically because things were going so well up until things went to hell. Well, it’s also because those characters were awesome, but I’ll go into characterization in another post. 

Oh yes, I’m looking at you, Walking Dead…

So yeah, I like looking into the darkness as good as any other guy. and I love me some dark stories like Spec Ops: The Line, but there’s something to be said for games like Saints Row 2 as well.

Saints Row 2 is a goofy, over-the-top open world crime simulator. You can play through the game as a cross-dressing clown who walks with a pimp cane that is also a shotgun. You can pilot attack choppers and destroy twenty pimped out gang cars as they fire rocket launchers at you. It’s not exactly a serious drama, is what I’m saying.

Johnny Gat, most badass character in the game, seen here being convicted of 1,000 counts of first degree murder.

Like Futurama, I spent most of my time laughing or at least smiling while playing Saints Row 2. There’s nothing like flying a plane directly into the pool of a rich billionaire, parachuting out before impact and then throwing that same billionaire into the flaming wreckage of his pool while he stares in open-mouthed amazement. Fun times.

And then Red Asphalt happened. Carlos is a young kid that helps you break out of prison in the beginning of the game. He’s a typical gang-youth, brash, violent, and not too smart. His character can’t be more than eighteen years old when we meet him, and he had a charm all his own.

And then a rival gang chains Carlos to the back of a truck and drag him through the streets like Achilles with Hector’s body. Only Carlos is still alive. I’d never felt angry playing Saints Row 2, but when I saw Carlos dragging behind that truck I was furious. I blew that truck apart with relish, and watched expecting to see Carlos stand up, brush himself up and say something in Spanish like he always does.

But he didn’t. He just lay there, his body completely shredded and just gasping for breath. He couldn’t even speak. My character drew his pistol and did the only thing he could, he ended Carlos’s suffering…

That’s the last thing you see of Carlos, your character holding his hand while he tearfully puts his friend out of his misery. It’s a brutal reminder of the reality of gangs, in a game that is essentially a parody of the idea. Gang violence claims the lives of thousands every year and injures even more. I found Carlos’s death had far more emotional impact for me than say, the death of Nico Bellic’s annoying cousin and girlfriend in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Nico Bellic goes from one crap hole to another the entire game, we rarely get to see him enjoying himself or even get a smile out of him, so when something bad happens to him…well so what? Something bad is always happening to him.

We could all take a page from Saints Row 2 and lighten up a little. That way when tragedy strikes, it actually means something.

Breaking Bad: How TV Should Be

So continuing my efforts to revisit some of my old topics, I’m going to be talking about TV writing; specifically how why TV series often fall apart in their final seasons. I mean we’ve all seen beloved shows slowly turn into an undead zombified version of the series we’ve watched for years, sometimes this only happens in that final season or sometimes it happens right off the bat moving from season 1 to 2. My previous post on this subject focused on Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives as examples of shows becoming unrecognizable slop after a few seasons, but for the sake of fairness I’m going to use some shows that I actually enjoyed this time around.

Let’s take House for example, one of my favorite shows that is right now going through the final agonizing episodes of a series finale that should have come years earlier. House was a fascinating character, which isn’t hard to do when you basically make a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes, but about midway through the series around season 5-6, the show looked like it might be wrapping up and House was going to evolve as a character, bringing his character arc to a satisfactory resolution. House begins hallucinating and is committed to a mental institution at the end of season 5, where the writers have a real chance to transform House and have his character reform over the course of the season. House had remained more or less a completely static character for most of the series, and like most TV shows, when he did occasionally break from his usual character (like when he connects with an autistic boy or when he helps a rape victim confront her emotions) it never lasts beyond that single episode. House may change over the course of a single episode, but by the next episode everything was back to normal. Here, however, there was a real chance to have the character evolve.

And for a while he does. He resists psychological counseling at first,

And if I were hallucinating this, I would resist too.

but eventually House confronts the fact that he has a problem and finally begins getting counseling with his doctor. He returns to work, kicks his Vicodin habit and he moves in with his best friend Wilson forcing House out of his perpetual isolation. By the end of season 6, House is actually devastated by the loss of a patient. Now he had lost patients before, and while he was always upset about that, it was more he was upset he couldn’t piece together the puzzle. It always bothered him intellectually, but Hannah’s death in season 6 emotionally traumatizes House, which is a huge step forward for him. He also finally confronts the fact that his refusal to cut off his leg was a mistake, and keeping a crippled mangled leg wasn’t worth the pain it brought him. For six years he held firm to the belief that he was right to not amputate, but finally he faces the truth and begins to move on.That’s what good characters do, they grow and change over the course of the story, that’s what keeps us interested in them.

Season 7 is where this show should have ended because this is where the character arc really ends. After pursuing a relationship with Cuddy, culminating in House ramming a car through her house in a fit of rage, House goes off to a nice tropical island where he seems to finally be at peace. Really, I think they could have given us a little epilogue there on the island, and we could have called the series good. He’d evolved into a reasonably well-adjusted person, still acerbic and brilliant but no longer socially and emotionally crippled, and in pursuing a relationship with Cuddy he finally reached out to someone. Even if it hadn’t ended in marriage, the fact he pursued the relationship at all was a huge step, especially after dancing around it for seven years.

But now here we are in Season 8 because Fox just refused to let House go off into that good night with his dignity intact. Oh sure, Season 8 started off okay with House in prison, but with each episode he turned more and more into a caricature. He’s back to a pill popping, socially inept and emotionally troubled man-child. They completely reset him. Probably because they were afraid a new and improved House wouldn’t get the viewers they wanted.  Now House is just a marionette, going through the motions but so wooden and repetitively that the audience can practically see the strings coming out of Hugh Laurie’s body. Instead of a series finale where we could tearfully wave goodbye to House, we’re going to be stuck watching the show slowly wither away, until the final episode comes as a complete relief because at least the poor thing’s suffering is over.

That’s the problem with writing for TV. With any other medium, be it book, movie or game, the writers go into the story knowing when and where it will end. They can plot out the entire story and the characters from beginning to end. Not so with TV, where the characters and plots need to stay more or less static because you never know if your story is going to last only a single season or be stretched out for ten years. This isn’t just true today, either, this has always been the case with TV writing. My mother introduced me to Golden Girls, a wonderful TV series from the 80s.  By the final season, every single character was a cipher characterized by a single trait. That’s how TV characters have always ended up.

But I think things are changing…

Meet Walter White:

Yeah, this looks like one dull character doesn’t he? Some average, everyday family man working as a chemistry teacher in some backwater town in the middle of nowhere. Why should anyone care about this nobody? Am I right?

No, I’m not right, not at all. Walter White is/was the most interesting character on TV, because he’s a good character. He changes over the course of the series, just like the characters in a book or movie would. Walter White is proof that you can have a deep dynamic character in a TV show and not only have that show be good, but be even better than most other shows could ever hope to be. If you haven’t seen this amazing series, you need to correct that problem right now. I know, it’s a problem you didn’t even know you had, I was the same way. But there’s hope! The first three seasons of Breaking Bad are on DVD and streaming on Netflix!  [Hi AMC, you can just make that check out to cash, thanks!] Also, I’m about to spoil this show as well, so if you haven’t seen it, you should probably wait until next week’s post!

It’s a great show though and let me show you why.

He starts off as a high school chemistry teacher, and I think we’ve all had a teacher like him in school. Somewhat shy, a bit unsure of himself, and more than a bit dull. However, when he’s talking about science (or whatever subject your particular teacher taught) he gets incredibly excited, his eyes and voice coming to life as he describes his passion. Unfortunately, also like most teachers, Walter’s students never seem to share his passion. His student’s constantly interrupt, most of them don’t even pay attention, and Walter just goes with the flow for the most part. Also like most teachers, he doesn’t make enough money as a teacher alone, so he has a second job at a car wash and is forced to work for a man with eyebrows so bushy they often scare small children.

Seriously, look at those things...

I think Dante listed that as the 7th circle of hell didn’t he? Despite only being the cashier at the car wash, mister bushy eyebrows routinely has him wash cars as well. Walter never stands up to him, but just quietly slinks away to clean cars. That’s Walter White, a meek little man who has let his ambitions and dreams slowly wither away to nothing leading a dull plodding life. And then he gets cancer. Inoperable Lung Cancer. A death sentence in other words.

He has no assets to leave his family, his pension as a teacher wouldn’t cover jack or shit, and he faces the prospect of dying as a complete failure (at least in his own eyes). He has one thing going for him though, he’s a brilliant chemist. Meth production and distribution is a multi-billion dollar industry, and Walter decides he wants in on some of that action. However, Walter isn’t a criminal kingpin and  doesn’t know how to distribute the meth without getting got. So he recruits an old, failed student of his: Jesse Pinkman. And our adventures begin.

First of all, at the beginning of the series, Walter insists on keeping stuff clean. His meth will be a pure product, refusing to use the additives that end up killing people (well killing them faster anyway, it’s still meth after all). He doesn’t want to become the Mexican Cartel that tortures and murders as easily as most people breathe, “No rough stuff” as Walter says. Well after a series of spectacularly hilarious screw ups,  Walter ends up with one dead body and a critically injured drug dealer in a basement.  Walter knows that the drug dealer, not being the most understanding of people, will probably kill them if they allow him to go free…

However, that’s exactly what he is planning to do…he can’t bring himself to kill a human being in cold blood. He’s just about ready to go downstairs and let the guy go, when he notices that a blade-shaped piece of ceramic plate that had been broken in the basement earlier, is missing. The drug dealer is planning to knife him the moment Walter let’s him go…and then this happens:

You can skip to 4:05 if you want to just skip to the killing part (you evil bastard)

Walter cries and begs for forgiveness even as he’s slowly choking the life out of the drug dealer…

With any typical TV show, Walter would always be like this, every time he was forced to kill people he would break down, because most TV executives would say “hey, people don’t want to follow a monster around!” and eventually the audience would get tired of Walter’s whinging. For instance, to drag up a video game again, Lara Croft is supposed to be a archaeologist of sorts, and in many games when she’s forced to kill someone she acts sad or horrified at her actions. That’s fine at the start, but after she’s shot and killed the 90th bad guy, it gets a bit hard to swallow. Breaking Bad avoids this common mistake by allowing Walter’s character to evolve…adapting to his role as a criminal by making killing even easier for him. Compare that above video to this:

Yeah, that’s Walter in Season 3. He plows into a couple of gang members, and then without a moment’s hesitation, puts a bullet through the head of the second gang member as he lays on the ground in agony. That is a huge difference in the character we saw in Season 1, and that’s what makes this series great. We have gotten to see Walter turn from a shy and polite chemistry teacher, into a hardened criminal able to kill people without a second thought. It’s brilliant. Even in movies it’s rare that we get to see a character descend into darkness, and even then, we don’t get to see it in this amount of detail. The two videos I showed you are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but between seasons 1 and 3, the audience gets to see Walter turn into the hardened killer you see in the second video. We see the small steps he takes, beating up a couple meth-heads for stealing from him, arranging a fixer to help Jesse after his girlfriend OD’s. Then, wanting to make more money, he goes into business with a high level drug dealer and watches as that same drug dealer literally beats a man to death with his bare hands. We see every small deliberate step he takes, until he becomes a finely honed predator ready to do whatever is necessary to survive.  He even begins to enjoy his new found power:

That look Walter gives him would make a god damn Navy Seal back off.

And this is how he describes himself to his wife:

“I AM the danger[…]I’m the one who knocks!” How badass is that?

And it’s not just Walter either…every single character in this series is important, every single one has a story, every single one of them is alive.  In so many shows the supporting cast are all just so much background noise, usually espousing a single characteristic, just shadows on the wall for the main character play off of. Not so in this series. Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law to Walter, at first acts like your typical Dirty Harry style cop. He talks big, but when it’s time to put that big talk to the test…we see that Hank isn’t what he originally appeared to be. After being forced to shoot and kill a suspect, Hank goes into a deep depression and begins suffering panic attacks. This is compounded when he’s witness to a bombing that tears apart fellow DEA agents right in front of him, and Hank is forced to use his belt to tourniquet a man whose leg has been blow off, leaving only half a thigh.

And in one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Jesse Pinkman comes to understand what he is:

Even the bad guys in this film have character though. Gustavo Fring, who becomes the main villain in the later seasons, is so well characterized you begin to sympathize with him despite that fact the guy is a heartless killer.

So take note, TV Execs out there. This is how you make a compelling TV show. You let the characters live and breathe, allow them to grow and change throughout the show, and don’t hamstring them by forcing them to follow the same routine with each episode.

Yeah you did, Walter.

You won.