As the credits rolled at the end of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, my mom and I turned to each other, wide-eyed, and simultaneously said, WHOA.
The film is a complete thrill, as I'm sure you've heard. I could go on about the dazzling extraterrestrial special effects, 60 percent of which were shot in a 10x10 foot "light box." I could happily praise Sandra Bullock's performance ad infinitum. I could also highlight the amazing feat of Cuarón's signature long takes - this time in space.
But instead I want to draw attention to the fact that Gravity is about the most linear story you can find, and it works. When the debris first comes flying towards Ryan and Matt within the first ten minutes of the film, I thought: how are they going to keep up this level of intensity and suspense for an hour and a half? Guess what - they did it, with strategically placed moments for us to catch our breath. But this is a film where nothing is wasted in the narrative (note: spoilers ahead).
First of all, what we learn about Matt and Ryan is only what's necessarily to drive the plot. Ryan is used to a laboratory and not zero-gravity; this could be seen as the 'call to adventure' in Joseph Campbell's theory of the hero's journey plot structure which ups the ante when her survival in space is on the line. Matt is a confident chatterbox, which perhaps reassures us when that crucial moment comes and they break contact - maybe he'll be alright with his words and the radio. Finally, the only other major character detail we learn about Ryan is that she lost her daughter, thus giving her a frame through which to understand her own death and her place in outer space (which, I would argue, then helps egg on her own striving for survival, and those moments of summoning strength are both character- and plot-based; again, no time is wasted in this film).
So, armed with purely the knowledge we need to have about these characters, we concentrate solely on watching them try to get home (live out the quest, in Campbell terms). Each obstacle that presents itself is a bigger 'uh oh' than before, but as the stakes rise and Ryan overcomes each danger, the suspense rises as well and each near-death (say, in the fire or when dream-Matt opens the pod door) feels less and less like a cheat. With the stakes so high, we hope Ryan makes it but even if she doesn't, either way we want to know how.
This spell-binding suspense is what sets Gravity apart from other linear stories, because while we crave a happy, victorious ending in keeping with the hero's journey, it seems so implausible that just watching a valiant struggle to whatever end there may be is enough. This is also why the actual ending is so satisfying, because there's struggle (against her own body) even in the last frames.
For those of you who have seen the film, what do you think of the ending and why?
P.S. After I wrote this I stumbled upon film scholar Kristin Thompson's fantastic and interesting analysis of the plot - hers both aligns with and departs from mine!