Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the inner and outer journeys of characters. The methods to learn these journeys are out there. There is GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict), Identity and Essence, Hero’s Journey/Character Arc. We’ve plotted out their skeletons. We’ve drawn their lives on snowflakes. We’ve interviewed them asking increasingly hard questions. I can’t stress enough how important it is to not only see a character move across the page, but we must know why they are moving.
I usually tout DreamWorks or Pixar for creating story lines that are so pure in their simplicity that they’re easy to pick apart and learn how to do all of the above. Who knew a complex movie, such as Gravity—that took the powers-that-be four years just to come up with the technology to film it—would also illustrate the outer and inner journeys so beautifully.
Beware. Major spoilers ahead. To see my safe movie review go to Theater Popcorn in my Teeth.
With only two characters on camera, and one of them George Clooney doing his trademark shallow loveable annoying guy shtick, it stands to reason that the other character would have depth. Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, is a veteran shuttle commander on his last mission. Sandra Bullock’s character is Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission. Bullock’s story is the one we’re interested in because it has depth.
I found it interesting that the tag line for the movie, Gravity, is “Don’t let go,” and one of the quotes as said by Clooney to Bullock is, “You have to learn to let go.” Opposite thoughts, yet they encompass Bullock’s character, Ryan, completely. One represents the outer journey, the other the inner journey.
First, the outer journey, or the actions of the character (movement on the page.) Ryan is on her first shuttle mission, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. She, along with Matt and a third astronaut named Shariff, are spacewalking. Ryan and Shariff are working on panels while Matt is trying to break the spacewalking record by circling the shuttle in his jetted suit. The unthinkable happens and a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite creates a debris field and Houston aborts the mission. The debris hits, taking out Shariff first, and Ryan is flung into the darkness with nothing but Matt in her ear via the radio trying to calm her down. He manages to reach her and pull her back to the shuttle, but it has been destroyed. They decide to try to make it to the ISS (International Space Station,) using Matt’s thrusters, which run out of juice, but they are still able to drift toward their goal. The crew has evacuated in one of the modules, and the second module has apparently accidentally deployed its parachute and is useless for returning to earth. It can, however be used to reach the Chinese space station to retrieve another module. As the two astronauts pass by the ISS they must grab hold of it or they will miss it entirely. Ryan gets tangled in the tethers of the deployed parachute, but grabs Matt before he drifts away. Matt tells her she must let go to save herself as he is pulling her out with him. (Now, here is one of the goofs, one that my practical hubby jumped on right away. You can read about it at IMDb.) Matt unhooks from Ryan and quips about being assured of breaking the spacewalking record. The rest of the movie is about Ryan trying to stay alive and her physically demanding attempts to get back to earth. . .alone, because she is now the sole survivor.
Now for the internal journey, or the “why” of the character (why she does the things she does.) When Ryan and Matt are making their way slowly to the ISS, he gets her talking. All we know at this point is that she doesn’t like his country music and she seems hyper-serious. We also know that she’s a perfectionist because she had refused to abort the mission until her job was done. She tells Matt that she is named Ryan because her father wanted a boy. Could this be why she’s a perfectionist? Trying all her life to live up to Daddy’s expectations? Hmm… This drive is what helps her outer journey of not letting go. We also learn that she had a daughter who had died in a schoolyard accident. Now we know why she’s serious and why Matt’s charm falls flat. She’s still grieving, and she must learn to let go.
From the time Ryan begins her fight to stay alive, (her outer journey,) what is really happening on the inside is that she’d be just as fine dying to be with her daughter. Yes, she fights like crazy, making her way to the Chinese space station because her perfectionist nature is driving her. (The character has a reason—inner journey—for why she does the things she does—outer journey.) However, she is soon out of options. The module’s thrusters are out of fuel. She makes the decision to give up and turn off the oxygen so she can drift away into eternal sleep. Enter Matt knocking on the portal. He enters and gives her a pep talk using his witty charm. He also tells her of a trick to get the module going again. (This is what is referred to as “the help” where the character is helped by someone to make their final decision. This help can be an actual person, a voice from the past, or, as in this case, a near-death hallucination.) Ryan wakes up and realizes Matt isn’t really there, but his voice is still in her head. She rallies and manages to turn the oxygen back on. In doing so, she makes the decision to continue fighting for her own life (outer journey,) but to let her daughter go (inner journey.) She looks toward heaven and talks to Matt, asking him to find her daughter. She has now fully dedicated herself to healing, knowing that her trusted mentor will be with her daughter.
Note how simple Ryan’s journeys are. She’s a perfectionist because of her father, which helps her outer journey of “don’t let go.” She’s grieving, which dictates her inner journey of “learn to let go.” Director Alfonso Cuarón has said that the thematic element of the film is “the possibility of rebirth after adversity.” What better way to show this than to heal the inner journey through outer conflict?
As we watch movies and read books, we need to be aware of the outer and inner journeys. A good story will have both, and we need to be sure our own characters not only move on the page, but have a reason to do so.