I stumbled on a review of Gravity the day it opened in Austin and went to see it on the spur of the moment. The visuals were incredible. I enjoyed them even though I didn’t see it in 3-D (not having realized it was a 3-D film until afterwards).
But while I loved the fact that the movie was built around a woman scientist/astronaut, I was a little disappointed in the movie. I had gotten the impression that it was leading to something new and different, but in the end it seemed to me like a typical disaster movie.
Seeing it got me in the mood for movies, though, so a few days later I went to see Alien, which I originally saw when it first came out in 1979. The special effects, which I thought were spectacular the first time I saw it, reminded me in spots of early Doctor Who (which takes pride in cheesy effects). And it’s essentially a monster movie — not my favorite kind of story.
But I still like Alien better than Gravity. It’s a feminist thing.
Both movies feature a woman in the lead — Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity and Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien. Neither exploits the sexual possibilities in this, unless you count the fact that both movies have the women stripping down to their underwear at one point. Bullock’s underwear is more functional than revealing — it’s like jogging clothes; Weaver’s is more revealing, but since the movie also shows most of the men in the cast in their underwear, it’s not all that out of line.
And both women take action and save themselves. But Gravity’s Stone does it after a hearing a speech from her co-star (George Clooney) that channels World War II heroes and the early astronauts featured in The Right Stuff. Ripley just does it; she wants to survive and she does.
Heroic speeches are always stirring. When Henry V is played by a great actor, I’m always ready to jump up and follow him to war after hearing, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” But when I’m not being moved by great literature — after all, Shakespeare wrote that speech, not the king — I question whether this kind of heroism is anything more than myth. I know people do brave things in dealing with war and other disasters; I’m not discounting their courage. I’m just questioning the mythology we’ve built around it. I suspect it leads people to do dumb things more often than it gives them the courage to survive.
Stone also has a tragic back story, while Ripley has no back story at all. In fact, we don’t even know Ripley’s first name or the first name of any of the crew. They’re coworkers, not close friends, and they deal with each other in that way. I found Stone’s back story improbable and unnecessary. It also implies that she became an astronaut because of that tragedy, which discounts the idea that a woman would take that path just because she wanted to.
Both stories show women doing incredible things, but Alien has her doing it without male encouragement or any tragic history. Of course, Ripley was written so that the role could be played by someone of any gender, as were all the other roles in that movie. And nobody in Alien gives a classic hero speech. They’re not heroes; they’re just working people trying to get the job done.
I’m not sure Alien is a better movie, in movie terms. These days I seem to always have a critic sitting on my shoulder when I go to the movies. I don’t seem to be able to get sucked into them the way I used to. I have that problem reading fiction, too; it takes a powerful book to pull me in so that I’m so caught in the story that I forget to pay attention to how it’s done. That makes sense in fiction, but I’m not a filmmaker and have no urge in that direction, so I don’t think that’s the reason in movies. I’ve been blaming it on the quality of movies, but maybe it’s simply that my standards for a good story have become impossibly high.
The real reason I like Alien better is that it gave me, in 1979, a woman hero I could believe in. She wasn’t brave because she was saving her children. She wasn’t trying to talk her husband out of doing the right thing. She was saving herself from disaster because she was smart and competent and could. At the time I was trying to find my way as a strong woman (with plenty of insecurities) in a male world that labeled me a “lady lawyer” and implied at all times that I would never, ever be good enough at anything.
Stone is also a strong character, but the script undercuts her a bit; she’s not as good a hero for my purposes as Ripley. It is true that Gravity is set in the present, more or less, and is perhaps indicative of our current struggles over how women fit into what has been a man’s world, while Alien is presumably set in a far future where those things have been dealt with (even if nasty corporations are running our world).
But, damn it, Alien was made in 1979. If a 1979 movie could envision a woman who didn’t need male help to be strong, why can’t one made in 2013?