Manufactured predicaments and why to avoid them (because they suck).

I was going to use the word crisis in the title instead of predicament, but the plural of crisis is crises, which looks weird.

Anyway, I couldn’t find a novel that illustrated why manufactured predicaments suck nearly as well as the movie Gravity.

Spoiler alert, I’m going to lay out the entire plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you are one lucky S.O.B. who dodged an hour and 31-minute bullet.

Life in space, as they say in the opening text, is impossible. Any yet, even though the movie is already set in the most dangerous location possible, where small miscalculations are lethal, the entire movie is a montage of one manufactured crisis after another with no organic plot development.  

The movie opens with three astronauts doing a spacewalk to repair the Hubble telescope. But the plot really gets going with the first manufactured crisis, i.e. all the satellites blowing up causing a debris field to intersect with the astronauts. I was never clear on how one satellite blowing up could somehow cause a chain reaction forcing all the other satellites to blow up as well since they’re thousands of miles apart, but that’s okay.

Wait, isn’t this blog post about why manufactured predicaments aren’t okay?

Yes, except for the first one. Call it a freebie since something has to kick the story off. One manufactured crisis at the beginning of a movie (or book) is forgivable, it jump starts the plot. And in the case of Gravity, all the satellites blowing up means Sandra Bullock’s and George Clooney’s mission went from routine to emergency. Basically, shit just got real. And that’s okay. What isn’t okay is that somehow the characters also loose communications with Houston, artificially ratcheting up the tension and the stakes for the sole purpose are ensuring the audience knows that the characters are now completely on their own. Even though the astronauts already had no possibility of outside rescue, the producer felt the need to sever this one tiny life-line. It does beg the question of how all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts talked to Houston on their missions before we had communications satellites though. Really, this is just the part of every thriller ever when the phones go dead. But since sound doesn’t travel in space you can’t hear the organ go Dun, Dun, DUUUUUUNNN.

Now apparently, and all evidence to the contrary, space is really small, because after the debris storm from the exploding satellites kills everyone but Bullock and Clooney, disables the space shuttle, and sends Sandra Bullock spinning off into space, it’s going to keep coming back around every 90 minutes. So somehow both the astronauts and the shrapnel are in continually intersecting orbits, despite the fact that the Hubble telescope, where they currently are, isn’t in a geosynchronous orbit. I won’t pretend to be a rocket scientist, so I’ll assume such a thing is not only possible, but likely, given how small space is. An idea reinforced when George Clooney just goes and rescues Bullock all easy-peazy using the space jet pack he spent the opening part of the moving flying around in for no reason because, apparently, NASA likes to spend millions of dollars putting people in space for fun. And that’s when the next manufactured crisis kicks off, because Sandra Bullock is now almost out of air. Sure, she literally just told Houston she’ll have the problem they needed fixed solved in an hour, but somehow now she only has eight percent of her air left. It’s okay though, because even after her air runs out, there’s still plenty of oxygen in her suit. Well, not plenty, but enough to get her through to the next manufactured crisis.

Clooney then uses his space jet pack to send them over to the International Space Station, which is apparently right next door because, as we’ve already established, space is pretty small. So cue the third manufactured crisis, the old “we’re out of gas.” As the thrusters on Clooney’s space jet pack run out of fuel, he and Bullock have just one chance (of course) to make it to the ISS where an empty Russian Soyuz capsule is conveniently docked.

(Side note: the ISS has been continuously occupied for the last fifteen years. Not sure where everybody went while the movie was going on. Perhaps Bullock and Clooney are divas and required it to be empty to serve as their personal dressing rooms.)

But even after Bullock and Clooney make it across space to the ISS, somehow the situation still devolves to the point where the only thing keeping Clooney from floating away into space is the tether Bullock is holding. And the only thing keeping Bullock from floating out into space is that her leg is trapped in the conveniently placed parachute chords of the Soyuz capsule. Why is the parachute of the Soyuz capsule deployed in space? It helps force another manufactured crisis. At this point, Clooney naturally sacrifices himself by letting go of the tether for absolutely no reason. Really just to make sure the protagonist, Bullock, is all alone.  

As Bullock finally makes it safely into the airlock of the International Space Station it’s time for the next manufactured crisis: the ISS is on fire, because of course it is. Bullock, of course, obliviously floats right by the fledgling fire that could be easily put out, preferring to wait until it becomes more dramatically engaging. Also, she’s in a hurry to get to the radio to try and talk to Clooney who’s now floating somewhere in space. She spends a couple minutes on some one-sided radio chatter before giving up, regardless of real world radio protocols where, in an emergency situation that’s not even in space, people would continue to try and make contact for hours, at least.

But back to the fire, which, as fires are want to do, has gotten pretty big, forcing her to bail out of the ISS and into the Soyuz capsule. This is necessary because if there wasn’t something to chase her into the capsule, she would have just hung out at the ISS, had some food, and maybe tried to call Houston a few more times. Basically, just slow the movie down.

But she does make it into the Soyuz capsule (luckily just before the fire gets there), neatly pulling the fire extinguisher inside instead of pushing it out when it blocks her from closing the hatch. This is important for another manufactured crisis later on. So now she’s safe and sound in the Soyuz capsule, but guess what? It’s stuck, because its parachute (the same one that save her life earlier) somehow deployed in space. Now she knows the satellite shrapnel is coming around again in a few minutes according to her watch (because the ISS is also somehow in the same continually intersecting orbit as the shrapnel. Remember, space is small.) So what does she do? She goes outside. This is the part of every thriller movie ever where the pretty coed goes running into the darkened basement/attic/barn to get away from the serial killer, usually in her underwear.

But naturally Bullock survives and gets the capsule free of the parachute, before making her way back inside. Now it’s time to revisit the third manufactured crisis, the Soyuz capsule is out of gas too. It’s at this point Bullock gives up, turns off her oxygen and decides to die. Luckily blue spirit-ghost Obi Wan KeClooney shows up and helps her through the rough patch while giving her the idea of using the capsule’s landing rockets to push it to the Chinese space station, which is not right next door but just down the road a bit, space being as small as it is.

So she heads for the Chinese space station in the Soyuz capsule, but has to bail out because out of gas, remember? Then she cleverly uses the fire-extinguisher to thrust vector her way to the Chinese space station. She probably saw the same episode of GI Joe I did as a kid, where they used a six pack of soda to do the same thing by shaking them up and then opening the tabs. Now naturally her fire extinguisher also runs out of gas, but she’s able to grab the very last hand hold on the Chinese station before she floats back off into space.

Now for some reason the Chinese station’s orbit is decaying and is slowly starting to rip apart and burn up on re-entry. Again, can’t have Bullock just hang out in the Chinese space station to wait for rescue and slow down the movie. So, she makes her way into the Chinese re-entry capsule and presses a bunch of buttons she can’t read. And in a capsule literally filled with buttons, she finds the correct ones after a couple tries. Fortunately, the movie established early in the Soyuz capsule that Bullock is able to easily operate foreign spacecraft with only the help a few simple checklists.

But there’s still time for one more crisis so after she rides the Chinese capsule down to Earth, she lands in a lake. Not in one of the oceans that make up 70% of the Earth’s surface, or on land that makes up most of what left, but a nice little lake. Why? Because the producer needed to eke out just one more manufactured crisis. Bullock has to pop the hatch of the capsule to vent the smoke from a small mini manufactured crisis that happened on her way down. And since the Chinese apparently never studied the old Mercury missions before they built their re-entry vehicle, it was designed the same way as ours from back in the 60’s, letting Bullock have her Gus Grissom moment as she almost drowns as the capsule fills with water and sinks.

Obviously the producer needed water for the last crisis, but why was it important that she land in a lake instead of the ocean? Because once she makes it out, ditches her suit, swims to surface and then to the shore, she’s too weak to stand up. And in case the audience has been lucky enough to spend the entire movie watching it in braille, she has a hard time standing up because she’s been in space, and the Earth has, wait for it, gravity. Oh snap, isn’t that the name of the movie? What are the odds of it coming full circle like that? Cue Oscar win music, seven times.

It should be noted that most of the Oscars Gravity won weren’t the type of Oscars normally associated with hit movies, like Best Picture or Best Actor/Actress. There were for things like: Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, etc. Basically, instead of being the best movie made that year, it was the best-made movie.

My point, other than bashing on the movie for fun, is it’s transparent when a writer uses a manufactured crisis simply to move the plot forward. Great novels and movies set up their climactic moments well in advance, so by the time the opposing forces reach the finale, it feels inevitable. Luke and Vader were never going to reconcile and attend a father/son picnic. Harry was always going to oppose Voldamort. John Mclain never not going to throw down with Hans Gruber. It was built into their character creation.

You might be thinking, “But Gravity wasn’t a person vs person movie, it was a person vs environment story, like Cast Away.”

Yeah, and holy crap was that movie boring too.

There’s probably a lesson in that somewhere.