For the past couple of months I’ve been auditing Dr. Corey Olsen’s class on Chaucer’s non-Canterbury Tale works at Mythgard. I’ve fallen a bit behind due to deadlines related to another project, which unfortunately means I’ve missed the discussion about Troilus & Creseyde — the main reason I wanted to audit the class. (The nice thing is that I have the lecture videos and forum access to review the at my leisure, now that I’m past my deadlines.)
Anyway, I asked my friend Dave, who is taking the class for MA credit, what he thought of the story. His pithy summary was, “Chaucer is a genius, but I don’t care about courtly tales. It’s the Middle English version of #FirstWorldProblems.” To which I, very humorously and with much aplomb, suggested the alternate hashtag, #FyrstWerldeTrauayles. You may laugh now.
Although I can’t (yet) assess Chaucer’s second-most famous work myself, I realized Dave’s description accurately fits two movies I recently saw: Gravity and Dallas Buyer’s Club. Both of these productions have received numerous awards, nominations and general critical and popular acclaim. They are very well made motion pictures by competent directors, compelling actors and capable technical staff, so perhaps those laudatory recognitions are well deserved.
However, as I watched each of these movies, I could not help but find myself being bored, or at best irritated, by their respective stories. Since story is generally more important to me than production value, directorial prowess or even acting ability, the absence of a motivating story is more than a small hiccup for me. Acknowledging that there are many technically fine aspects to both of these movies, what follows is neither review nor critique, but rather criticism, showing where I think the stories of Gravity and Dallas Buyers’ Club fail.
In a nutshell, the foremost problem with Gravity is that it shoots its wad too soon. There’s an unevenness to plot’s pacing that, instead of building suspense, depressurizes like a slow-leaking oxygen tank. (See what I did there?) Each successive sequence in the attempt Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) makes to return to Earth is essentially a replay of the previous one: Space debris comes, stuff blows up, Stone finds herself in an uncontrolled tumble, which is corrected primarily through luck or rescue. After the first incident sends Stone rolling off alone into space, there is no real escalation. Sure, she has to deal with other hindrances — low oxygen reserves, pesky technical failures, fire, etc. — but the story fails to develop a cumulative effect demonstrated much better in movies like Mark Wahlberg’s Lone Survivor, where you are constantly reminded not only of each present trouble but of all those that preceded it as well. Although not a horror flick (even if Ryan Stone is a perfectly suitable name for a Final Girl), given its lacking story, Gravity‘s creative directors would have done well to follow Sam Raimi’s purported formula for The Evil Dead: “Keep the pace fast and furious, and once the horror starts, never let up.”
Another big problem with the story of Gravity is its reliance on first-person exposition to tell Stone’s backstory. Modern motion pictures have many tricks to deliver backstory to audiences, but the creative powers behind Gravity chose the boring and uncompelling method of dialogue (or worse, monologue) in lieu of them all. In the first few minutes of the movie before everyone Stone knows dies, we manage to get a few tidbits: It’s her first mission, she’s nauseous, only she can install a particular thingummy, and she likes the quiet of space. A half hour of action sequences passes before we learn she had a daughter who died from a random accident at the age of four. We get some more personal details when Stone talks to a fisherman, who neither speaks nor understands English, in which she says she never learned how to pray. This happens, of course, about ten minutes before she prays to Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the guy who saved her and whom she failed to save in return, just after seeing him in an oxygen deprivation-induced dream — showing that Gravity‘s creative minds do know what dream sequences are, they just chose to use them to give Clooney some additional screen time rather than develop a more compelling character for Stone. I should also mention that we learn more about Kowalski’s character background in the first five minutes, with his stories to Houston, than we learn about Stone’s for the other 86.
Which leads me to the most egregious problem with Gravity, Stone’s almost complete lack of primary agency. When she goes spinning into space, Kowalski not only has to rescue her with his manned maneuvering unit, but he has to give her step-by-step instructions on taking out and then stowing her flashlight. He tows her miles away to the International Space Station, and when their tether is broken, her trajectory is stopped only when she accidentally gets tangled in the parachute of the unusable Soyuz module. She can’t even properly fail to save Kowalski, who sacrifices himself by detaching the tether so she won’t get pulled away with him. Even after Kowalski is out of radio range, most of Stone’s actions are to follow advice or knowledge he gives her, either directly or via dream. Rarely do we see Stone act on her own intelligence or knowledge, which is hinted at in the beginning, but never allowed to evince. Stone never directly utilizes the six months of training she received (which, granted, isn’t the two years that NASA typically provides to astronaut candidates, but it’s still something). She does, however, bizarrely focuses on a Mr. Miyagi-like quip from Dream Kowalski that “landing is launching” — a curious phrase that has no basis in fact. I’ll note that I’m not the first to see problems with Stone’s lack of agency in Gravity.
For all of these reasons, the story of Gravity just doesn’t work for me. What little character development occurs is slipshod at best. It didn’t have to be that way, but apparently the movie’s makers thought everyone would be so mesmerized by the stunning visuals — and yes, they are stunning — that they wouldn’t notice the story sucks. It’s too bad, because with a little focus on characterization, the movie could have really lifted off. (See that? Another pun.)
Dallas Buyers Club
I have an admission to make: I thought Matthew McConaughey (“the McCon” hereafter) did a pretty decent job in this role. Sure, attractive actors have played ugly people before, but the McCon really convinced me. Of course, Christian Bale did a better job of it in American Hustle, but then…Christian Bale. I have to give the McCon his proper dues, however, because on Twitter I doubted whether he was worthy of receiving the Oscar for Best Actor over Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). I still think Ejiofor deserved the award, but I acknowledge now that it’s a much closer call than I had originally considered it could be.
And I was surprised at how similar the two actors’ roles are, each providing a historical portrayal of a man who suffers undue persecutions. Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free man subjected into slavery for the eponymous dozen annī, during which he is beaten and whipped and hung simply because he has the wrong color skin. The McCon gives animus to Ron Woodroof, a belligerent and bigoted man who contracts AIDS by having lots of unprotected sex and injecting himself with lots of intravenous drugs, and then gets angry at everyone when he learns that he can’t legally get the untested pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements he believes might possibly give him a chance to treat the disease for a little while. The roles are uncannily parallel!
By “uncannily parallel” I mean “completely dissimilar,” of course. Northrup is immediately likable, and it is impossible not to sympathize with every moment of his plight — not to mention weeping with joy when he finally returns to his family. I have a hard time, however, finding any redeeming quality in Woodroof, whose total character growth consists of begrudgingly befriending one particular transgender woman. Mind you, I write this as someone who, as a libertarian, is constitutionally predisposed to liking people who show up powerful government regulatory agencies like the FDA, as Woodroof does, but even that doesn’t really give me enough to work with in this movie: By the end, I found it hard to care that the FDA has screwed him over repeatedly.
The sad thing is that the story did not have to be what it was. Far from being a homophobic jackass, the real Ron Woodroof was apparently bisexual — according to many people who knew him for years, including his ex-wife. But apparently writer Craig Borten got to know him better in three days than all of those people, insisting that the trajectory of Woodroof’s life was “from bigotry to tolerance.” Even if Borten is correct on this point, the movie fails to deliver such a trajectory: The Woodroof portrayed by the McCon is just as motivated by greed and self satisfaction at the end as at the beginning. In and of itself, selfish motivation can be a perfectly fine character component, and it’s possible to retain such selfish motivation and also become a more likable person — think Gregory House from House or both Cordelia and Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ultimately, the problem with Dallas Buyers Club is that it waffles between showing character change and showing how a character can effect change without actually changing himself. This indecision is what makes the storyline weak and ineffective.
Both Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club are good examples of what I’ve come to call the Avatar Corollary to Sturgeon’s Law. If Sturgeon’s Law is that “90% of everything is crap,” then a corollary must be that many things which appear to be fine are deeply flawed in some way. The movie Avatar exhibits this corollary perfectly, given its extremely beautiful settings, the incredible technical prowess required to make it — and the utter void of decent story to go with all of it. I’ve stated many times to friends and family that Avatar is little more than a beautiful piece of crap. The two movies explored above are much in the same vein.