Gravity vs. Alien

Gravity movie posterI 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 Alien movie posterSigourney 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?

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Gravity vs. Alien — 14 Comments

  1. I didn’t get the idea that Stone became an astronaut after her tragedy. In fact I had the impression she was sort of a reluctant passenger, part of the crew only because of her expertise with the project. Like you, I wasn’t impressed with her backstory. I liked the idea that she had a child – women shouldn’t have to remain single and childless if they want to go into space. I didn’t think it was necessary for the daughter to have died – THAT does imply that women who are mothers shouldn’t go into space. Annoyed the hell out of me.

    In the end, though, Stone doesn’t beat out Ripley. Sadly, that’s probably because Ripley was written to be either male or female. Also, Alien is old-fashioned science fiction: just the story folks, and don’t confuse the issue with well-rounded characters.

    • Good point about the limited characterization in Alien. But while I’m not usually a fan of the interchangeable characters in some old-fashioned SF, I still like it that Ripley is fighting to survive out of her own desire to live, not because of some pep talk or because she’s overcoming tragedy in her life.

    • Lack of character development aside, the fact that they even chose a female for the role significantly colours the end result; it shows not only that men and women do share many basic characteristics but that an impartial and effective (and marketable) portrayal of this is possible – a highly unusual perspective in a genre (world, actually) otherwise bombarded by overarching gender stereotypes.

      Isn’t this what equality supposed to look like – that we see beyond the body parts to the human being underneath?

      • There is definitely progress in these filmic decisions, even within our lifetime. PACIFIC RIM was idiotic on so many levels, but by heaven they did not have gratuitous tits and ass, and for this we may be grateful. They had a quite competent heroine. How much better a movie if the genders had been completely reversed throughout the whole movie, but that is beyond us at this point in time.

  2. I liked the pep talk because it was a handing-on of the torch. This was the old hand giving the newbie a legacy. The idea that we do not leap in as heroes de novo, but we stand upon the shoulders of those who came before.

  3. I love Ripley! I agree, Sandra Bullock’s character wasn’t the groundbreaker that Ripley was. I am pretty tired of movies where the woman lacks training or experience and the man is paternalistic.

  4. Hi Nancy,

    [Warning — SPOILER! — will try to add some spoiler space, which WP may strip out…]

    … Spoiler space!

    The thing about the Clooney speech that energizes Ryan Stone is that it’s an hallucination. You know that as soon as you realize that Matt comes in through a hatch direct from space and Stone *doesn’t die.* She’s making it up: She’s telling herself what to do. What other hallucination is going to remind her about the landing jets? (Imagine the teeth-grindingly cloying scene if it had been the ghost of her daughter. Ew.)

    I perceived her as a scientist — a mission specialist — who had just barely got through astronaut training because having “the right stuff” (as Matt does, in spades) wasn’t part of her job. She’s there to fix the frammistat or hunt down the macguffin or steal the Maltese Falcon. She’s the only one who can do it because Reasons. Then she’s handicapped by nausea, which as I understand it isn’t particularly predictable — either who will experience it or how long it takes (if ever) to get over it.

    It would have been too grittily realistic for her to toss her cookies in her spacesuit.

    But then she has to find some of the right stuff within herself in order to survive. (I didn’t quite believe she’d get through the banging-up she took without some injuries more severe than the bruise on her temple, but I have this problem with a lot of action-adventure fiction.)

    Anyway. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed ALIEN as well, all those years ago when it premiered at SIFF.

    Vonda

    • I didn’t mention that bit because of the spoiler effect. In some ways that can be seen as her finding the “right stuff” inside her.

      I really shouldn’t opine on new movies any more. I’m just too damn picky. I want something new in the story that knocks my socks off.

  5. It is making buckets of money, however. And this augurs well for other decent space movies, which God knows we could use more of. High fantasy has had a long, long run in the movies (that Harry boy is to blame). This may get some true SF onto the screens. I have long felt that A FALL OF MOONDUST would make a fine short film.

    • I want to see something made from a short story. Adapting novels is so often unsatisfactory — you can’t possibly get a whole novel into a 2-hour movie. If they would draw from SF short stories, they’d find some very original ideas.

      But I’m just too damn picky to go to the movies. I compare everything to Seven Samurai and if it’s not on that level, I’m not satisfied. That’s not really fair. Kurosawa was a genius.

      I am talking story here, not special effects.

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