Gravity is a fantastic movie and you should have seen it by now. If you haven’t, I suggest you put that rock you’ve been living under up for sale on Craigslist and go out to the nearest IMAX theater and watch it. This is mainly because what I’m going to discuss here does include mild spoilers, so don’t go on if you need to make a run to your local cineplex.
As I discuss Gravity with more and more people, the list of adjectives used to describe Alfonso Cuarón’s latest only grows, but there are a few shared sentiments among all of them. It is riveting, it is visceral, and it is a necessity, not just for viewers but for other filmmakers. It makes everyone on both sides of the creative line realize that you can set records with just two incredible actors and a stupidly tight tapestry of harrowing and paralyzing themes.
One of the things that I only hear among fellow video game writers and players, however, is that Gravity is, in fact, a lot like a video game. But when I break down the aspects of the movie that make it most like the product of our industry, many people tend to agree. The problem is that they have to overcome the largely negative stereotype that accompanies films that are “like a video game.”
There is a review, for instance, in the New York Times for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World by A.O. Scott that said almost the entire movie was like a video game, but only on superficial level; the visuals—the way director Edgar Wright brought the bright, colorful, and active graphics of games—were like a video game. Others are less kind, such as The Atlantic Wire review of The Hobbit which included in the title “like one bad video game,” meaning it covers up lacking vision with pretty CGI like spackle on a cracked wall.
Granted, Gravity can superficially fall under this umbrella as well. The most obvious one borrows from the likes of The Rock’s Doom, uh, reimagining, which is to say that there are plenty of first-person sequences. The camera literally shifts into the eyes of Dr. Ryan Stone as she tries to stop herself from floating off into space. Even those that don’t play video games are quick to make that comparison.
Of course, we also recognize Cuarón’s signature protracted shots as how we are generally presented cutscenes. Especially since the dawning of the age of “cinematic” presentation in games—a horribly misappropriated term considering most people just really mean that someone finally figured out how to properly light a scene in-engine—like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, we are more used to the seamless transition of interactivity to passive witness, so when we see Stone shift from actively work on a task to being the toy of physics and bad luck, we relate. You know, video game-wise.
But those that are more familiar with the medium know that the similarities go far deeper than camera tricks, though spectacular as they are. The greatest asset borrowed from video games, which might also be Gravity’s greatest strength, is the structure of the film.
You might have noticed that the movie starts slow, although even these opening moments where we just see George Clooney be George Clooney are still incredibly gripping. We see Sandra Bullock’s Stone struggle with the weightless nature of space, and the massive lack of control afforded to a human floating at the whims of science. And once things start to go wrong, we see the risk these three astronauts have taken on by being on this mission.
This is our tutorial. Instead of learning how to aim a gun and throw grenades, we learn the rules of space: it’s dangerous, it’s cold, and it’s uncaring. You learn (if you didn’t already know) that oxygen runs out, propulsion in space is difficult, and just about anything can kill you. We’re learning the basics just as if we were learning how stealth works in Splinter Cell. It’s vital because it sets up how hard it is for Stone to survive once shit hits the fan.
Then all of the ensuing action sequences take the form of levels of a video game. Stone goes from one discrete navigable chunk of space to another, each one increasingly more difficult and unfamiliar, which is perhaps the most important part of this. She starts on the Explorer with the Hubble Space Telescope, goes to the International Space Station, followed by the Chinese space station Tiangong, where she must use Wall-E-like tactics to propel herself through open space to pilot a vehicle she’s never used or could possibly understand (it is, after all, designed for Chinese speakers).
Each one of these man-made structures is a level in a video game. It’s a new location with a discrete objective. Get back to the shuttle and look for survivors; get to the ISS and use a Soyuz module to get back to Earth; get to Tiangong and use that to splashdown. Each one is designed like a fetch quest where you arrive, you discover a twist (Soyuz won’t work, there’s a fire, etc.), and you must then get to the new area.
This, for the most part, is how video games work. More than as a vehicle to propel players from plot point to plot point, games operate as a utility to get you from one location to another. That’s basically 90% of all Rockstar games and the entire reason Nathan Drake finds himself on top of a train, on a sinking ship, in a mountaintop village, and bleeding out in a crashed train. Location, objective, travel. That’s how games work, and that’s how Gravity works.
That is where, oddly enough, Gravity also excels. In a movie where cumulative tension is the goal, escalation is the name of the game. Most movies similarly operate under this framework where three acts gradually bring up the stakes until they ultimately resolve, but Gravity incessantly feeds into that silo of rattled nerves by utilizing the multiple quest structure within each level. The stakes are similar to a game—which is to say the character’s life—and they are always at risk by running out of oxygen, being flung off into space, by burning up in a space station, etc.
With that endless assault, we get the same mental fraying as in video games. The objectives and stakes are simultaneously fueled and usurped by the need to survive. Rather than a drama where we have always work towards overthrowing a government or rekindling love, the need to keep our heart beating and our eyes blinking is our primary motivator. The overarching narrative is still there with the external stakes (get back to Earth or stop the nuke or whatever), but the level structure builds inherent drama within each moment rather than within each act break.
So yes, Gravity is like a video game. But not just in the same way most people associate with the phrase like cartoonish violence, excessive digitization of the world, or anything like that. Gravity is like a video game in the very framework from which it is borne. The way it crafts its tension and feeds its drama takes a page from the now almost trite pattern of video games and does it masterfully. Gravity is like a video game, and that’s a good thing.