It’s always a weird feeling to dislike a beloved prestige film. I have to wonder what everyone else saw in it that I didn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to even pin down the problem that I have with it. Of course, with Gravity, I didn’t just dislike it, I despised it, and I know exactly why. Part of it might just be my being a misanthropic jerk, but I have science to back me up. And I’m not talking about the film’s horrible excuse for astrophysics, either.
The film starts out on a space walk where George Clooney’s commander is a genial chatterbox, there’s a redshirt who’s just thrilled to be there, and Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is slightly ill and completely wooden, no hints of a personality at all. Then shit goes bananas, right then and there. Everyone’s instantly thrown into mortal danger, which okay, but I don’t know who any of these assholes even are and thus have no vested interest in what happens to them. Yeah, people die. It happens. Oh, some people inside the shuttle died? Might have been heartbreaking if I knew they existed before that second.
Like I said, I’m probably kind of a bitch to think this, and I won’t deny that. But see, there’s this concept called Dunbar’s number, also colloquially known as the monkeysphere. It posits that there’s a limit on how many people you can actually conceive of as people before your brain starts looking for other ways to label them, and there’s quite a lot of research to back it up. You know the saying, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”? That’s the monkeysphere. Your brain is not physically capable of scaling empathy without cutting corners, because your brain is a lazy son of a bitch.
This might not be the case for people who don’t consume as much media, but heavy readers–like, for instance, agents, editors, reviewers, and everyone else who’s critical to the creation and success of a novel–get introduced to a lot of characters in their lives. Since that’s not exactly the same as a close, personal relationship with a non-fictional person, it doesn’t quite tax the brain in the same way as defined under Dunbar, but there’s still an upper bound. That means that the characters in a new work all start outside the monkeysphere, and something has to bring them inside.
This is why three-act structure exists. You don’t have to hew to it exactly, but it’s common because it’s effective, because it lines up with how our brains work and respond to things. One of the major established beats is the inciting incident, the moment where everything changes. But see, you can’t recognize change if you don’t know the original state. That’s why experiments need control groups and baseline data, and that’s why you have to be extremely careful about opening with the inciting incident. Even in novels where it does work (The Nightmare Dilemma springs to mind), that moment doesn’t happen on the very first page, so there’s been some time to introduce the character and the world, to start cracking the shell of the monkeysphere.
Now, movies will try to get around this by trading on your familiarity with an actor so they don’t have to work as hard to create a connection to the character. That’s clearly what Gravity is going for when it gives only a cursory introduction to its characters, that we’ll be rooting enough for Sandra Bullock that we don’t notice that Ryan Stone is pretty much a non-entity and only the object of our concern because protagonist. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had that kind of connection with Ms. Bullock, which might not have been a problem were this not a castaway movie where 100% of the tension is based on concern for her survival. Combined with the repetitive tedium of the dangerous setpieces (Hey, we escaped the destruction of one space station! Let’s celebrate by escaping the destruction of a second one!), by the end I was actively rooting for her to die.
(The character, not the actress. Despite the title of this post, I’m sure Sandra Bullock is a lovely person and I wish her no ill will, and please don’t sue me.)
It’s tempting to just dive in and get to the good stuff, but give us a glimpse of normal before you throw us into chaos. Remember that your audience is going to be filled with jaded misanthropes like me, and you have to put in the work to make us care. “Because protagonist” is not sufficient.