The first time I saw Sandra Bullock she was chasing a bus; most recently, she was chasing an out-of-control space station. On both occasions I was mightily impressed by the thrilling films and the show-stealing acting.
It occurred to me after watching Alfonso Cuarón’s fantastic Gravity that there are parallels between Bullock’s outings as Annie Porter (Speed) and Dr Ryan Stone (Gravity). I’m not going to give away much from Gravity, so this will be spoiler free.
Names: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, good writers don’t just pluck characters’ names out of thin air. A lot of thought must go into them. Speed and Gravity don’t dawdle. They give you just enough time to take a deep breath before the action explodes. This means no time for exposition. Names get the added responsibility of informing us of character. Hence, Porter = someone who carries a burden (how’s a packed bus with a bomb on board for a burden – oh, and you can’t slow down) and Stone = rock, Earth, i.e. belongs on terra firma rather than bumping about 600km above the surface of the planet. Not only that, her first name, Ryan, is a clever unisex symbol, representing both male and female – Ryan Stone is a name to represent any human being.
Speeds: The velocity of the bus was 50mph, any slower than that and the bomb would explode. The speeds involved in space are mind-boggling. Sandra and George seem to be drifting along, tethered to satellites and each other, but in reality the are spinning about the Earth at about 15,000mph. A disastrous collision sends a cloud of debris their way like a swarm of ‘high-speed bullets’.
Baddies: Both films’ antagonists deal in high-speed death. Dennis Hopper played Howard Payne (geddit?) in Speed, who liked to blow things up and tear things apart. In Gravity, the baddie is an orbiting cloud of space shrapnel that punches through spaceships like bullets through butter.
Heroes: Twenty years ago, Keanu Reeves was always going to be the focus of an action movie. He was calm, could kick ass, looked great. Sandra played a great female character – strong, cute, funny, independent – but she was always going to play second fiddle. In Gravity, Sandra plays the central character. The film orbits her. She is on screen almost the whole time and when she’s not we are seeing what she’s seeing. Two decades is a long time in film, enough for an epic action movie to be carried by a female character and not need an alpha male to save her – even if that male is played by George Clooney.
Between the Lines: Speed is a male movie; Gravity is a female film. Speed could be remade today (and somebody, somewhere is probably thinking seriously about this) with the genders of the two main characters reversed, no problem. You could imagine Angelina Jolie leaping onto a bus in a tight white vest and everything. You could see Ryan Reynolds cracking jokes while being scared witless in the driving seat. You could NOT do the same with Gravity. Gravity is a gender-specific film. If George was the main character it would be a far different, far more shallow, film. Gravity is as much about the miracle of life and the role of females in it as it is about the perils of space. Gravity is a disaster movie that name-checks birth, evolution and the theory of panspermia.
Many commentators are suggesting that the best film to dock with Gravity is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I would suggest watching Speed first, then going to see Gravity. It will tell you more about the evolution of film-making, story-telling, characterisation, special effects, dialogue, audience preconceptions, and technology. It will also let Hollywood know that we demand intelligent films, not derivative guff. We want more Speed, less Fast (and the Furious).
Gravity has raised the bar high – 600km high.