Why "Gravity" Is A Massively Important Step Forward For Women In Hollywood

Fundamentally, "Gravity" is about this: It is about a woman’s lone journey from abject terror to resourceful triumph.

Oct 24, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

I went to see “Gravity” again last night, because a friend hadn’t seen it yet and I suspected that I wanted to write about it. Like Sady Doyle at In These Times, I was struck by what the film represented for women in Hollywood, and the future of film.

“Gravity” may be a technical triumph, the kind of film to make hardcore film geeks squee with delight, hard science fiction and action with a stark bent and amazing special effects. But, fundamentally, it is about this: It is about a woman’s lone journey from abject terror to resourceful triumph.

And that's what makes it so important. 

This is a movie about a woman, and her journey. It is not a movie about men, which makes it a radical departure from science fiction -- from Hollywood in general. With all due respect to pioneers like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, women in commercial science fiction are all too often relegated to stage left, the better to highlight the accomplishments of the men who save them, save the world, save humanity.

It is also about vulnerability and the insignificance of humanity, something underscored repeatedly by the dramatic shots of astronauts against the skies, Earth looming large below them. Doyle notes that even at moments when Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is stripped to her skivvies after removing her spacesuit, she looks less like a woman being paraded before the screen for objectification purposes, and more like a small, desperate survivor trying to eke out an existence.

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Photo: Warner Brothers

It’s the kind of movie that is not supposed to succeed by conventional Hollywood measures, at all, yet, as Doyle points out, Gravity made: “$55 million in its first weekend alone. This is the biggest opening weekend for any Sandra Bullock vehicle, any George Clooney vehicle, or any movie opening in the month of October.” Clearly, there is something about “Gravity” that drew fans the opening weekend, and continues to draw them; it’s dominated box offices for three straight weekends and as of Sunday had pulled in $170 million in just 17 days.

That would seem to suggest that audiences are ready to pay to see women at the helm, which flies in the face of traditional understandings about Hollywood and what we’re repeatedly told. In fact, it even flies in the face of what Caurón was told while working on the film, when he was asked to change the lead to a man, or to create some male-centric backstory for her. He refused, preferring to isolate Bullock alone in the vastness of space, and the result was explosively, hair-raisingly, edge-of-your-seat good.

“Gravity” opens with a showy display of special effects as we see Dr. Stone, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and Shariff Dasari (Paul Sharma) on the Space Shuttle, performing work on the Hubble. We’re quickly exposed to the immense joy and terror of spacewalking, but the stakes go up when Houston radios up with news of a destroyed Russian satellite, which sets off a chain reaction of events that maroons Stone and Kowalski in space as the shuttle is destroyed and they’re left adrift. Soon Kowalski too is gone, leaving Dr. Stone on her own in space.

As a medical doctor, Stone’s experiences lie on Earth, and while she’s had astronaut training, she is clearly out of her element in space, something that is stressed repeatedly as she struggles to navigate a hostile environment utterly alone. She is by turns determined to survive -- dodging fireballs in the International Space Station and hanging on to her last scraps of reason when her CO2 alarm starts screaming at her -- and brought to the edge of her tolerance, this close to giving up entirely.

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Photo: Warner Brothers

This is not a heroine who magically transforms from weeping lily clinging to Matt Kowalski’s suit to action goddess in one smooth transition. Dr. Stone has weaknesses, moments of self-doubt and frustration, outbursts of rage and defeat. But in the end, she’s triumphant, pushing herself to the limits as she encounters a series of horrible mishaps on her way back to Earth.

A film like this is not supposed to do well. A thought-piece predominantly featuring a woman alone in space battling against the elements is traditionally positioned as a snoozefest, perhaps of interest to a limited audience but certainly not to “general audiences” (by which people mean men, generally speaking). It’s certainly a shift from the romantic comedy vehicles we’ve come to expect to see Sandra Bullock in; and in this film, she definitely demonstrated that she has the vulnerability, deftness, and range to perform amazing well in dramas, too.

This is supposed to be the kind of movie that’s maybe a bit of a sleeper hit, and instead it’s dominating box offices and raking in critical acclaim. Some might attribute that to the astounding special effects, but that would be a mistake, because special effects alone cannot carry a film, cannot keep pulling audiences in, cannot entice people to keep coming back to see it again. While some of the film’s audience might have been brought to the theater by the special effects, they stayed for something else.

They stayed for the drama unfolding on screen. This is not a movie that has been marketed as a bait and switch; from the start, we know that Dr. Ryan will be alone in space, and that we’re going to be seeing a lot of a lonely woman on screen. Which means that people going to see it are investing in that, are ready and willing to watch a movie about one woman’s journey, and that’s a pretty amazing thing, given how often Hollywood tells us that such a thing is impossible, that a man is needed to carry a box office hit.

“Gravity” has, of course, its missteps. The schmaltzy storyline about Dr. Ryan’s dead daughter wasn’t terribly necessary, intended perhaps to soften and humanize her character but playing instead as a trashy appeal to emotion. The dream sequence in which George Clooney appears to play the hero was disappointing; while I like to imagine the solution to her fuel problem came from within her own mind, the fact that it was cloaked in Kowalski’s folksy wisdom means that some viewers undoubtedly interpreted it differently.

These glaring stumbles aside, though, “Gravity” explored some limits and pushed through them, and for that alone it’s worth a closer evaluation and consideration, even as we also think about the limits that weren’t pushed. Cast with a Black lead, even a well-known Black actress like Hallie Berry, “Gravity” likely wouldn’t have proved as unexpectedly popular, for example. Likewise, the film could have been radically different if Kowalski’s self-sacrifice hadn’t been needed to propel the storyline -- Dr. Ryan’s story became inextricably tangled with that of a male hero at the moment he untethered himself to save her.

But the moment when Dr. Stone climbs shakily to her feet on Earth and sets off across the landscape, that moment is her own, and no one can take it from her.