Space and Slavery: A Comparison of Gravity and 12 Years a Slave
The sole protagonist is suddenly thrown into the dark void of emptiness and despair. Rescue and escape almost uncertain. No one to save them.
Of course, I'm referring here to Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Or am I talking about Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón? I can't remember anymore. They're basically the same movie.
At least they're the two best movies of 2013, despite how many people keep telling me that Jennifer Lawrence is amazing (I get it, she is). But beyond their overall brilliance and the fact that both films are by filmmakers at the top of their game, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity also have a load of similarities in terms of narrative storytelling. In the end of a season that thrives on comparing films that can't possibly be compared, I'm surprised I haven't seen a more direct comparison between these two masterpieces (despite having seen a plethora of debate surrounding which film is superior). I for one have found the comparison undeniable.
Gravity and Slave are after the emotions of the viewer at full force. One elevates your heartbeat as you fly through space, gasping for air. The other almost lowers it to the point where you're unable to even comprehend the horrors of slavery. At first these two films couldn't possibly look any different.
One film looks to the past, one looks to the future (in a sense). Ironically, however, Gravity is the more classical film. Gravity is Lumière's L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. It's big. It's spectacle. It's the show that's meant to wow the audience and make them believe in the unbelievable. The technical achievements of those behind the curtain are certainly the film's strongest dimension and guarantee top honors in in visual effects and cinematography. Gravity's visuals are nothing short of amazing and point to the future of the medium. Slave, on the other hand, is based on a true story, has a stronger supporting cast (or, you could say a supporting cast) including fantastic performances by Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, and is punctuated by specific scenes of utter despair and unbelievable hardship in the way these characters interact with each other.
What, then, draws the comparison between these films? For me, it can simply be surmised in the role of slavery and space in each film. Despite such a strong supporting cast in 12 Years a Slave, both films focus on characters overcoming unspeakable odds. The vast weight of slavery crushes Solomon Northup, trying to change who he is at his core. Less metaphorically, the same can be said of Ryan Stone in Gravity. She loses hope of ever being able to escape this force that surrounds her. 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are David and Goliath stories on an epic scale. Though two movies are hardly enough evidence to suggest a trend, it is within reason to infer that such a focus is not meaningless to the current state of the economy and the will of the American spirit (throw in American Hustle, Captain Philips, and the sorely underappreciated Inside Llewyn Davis and we have a stronger analysis of overcoming the odds, but Gravity and Slave certainly get the job done).
How these films show their protagonists is different but not drastically so. Sandra Bullock's Ryan in Gravity is a more direct point-of-view character, which may contribute to the unfair criticism of the script despite being wildly appropriate (and successfully executed) for the story. This is why comparing films is so arbitrary. The writing in Gravity may not be as intricate and exquisite as Slave, but anything else just wouldn't make sense. Neither character is super compelling because the viewer is supposed to be the protagonist, especially in films such as these in which the forces surrounding you, whether it be the void of space or the void of slavery, are so prominent. Gravity is certainly "the space movie" just as 12 Years a Slave is "the slavery movie." These forces are the true stars of the films.
At the end of the day, it comes down to which movie makes you feel more and what that feeling really is as you follow these characters into darkness. Is it a heart-stopping roller coaster of fear feeling? Or a deep, tragic and unforgiving feeling? For me, the latter is always a little more impressive to pull off.
Personally, however, I'd be happy if either of these films one the top prize on March 2nd over the other nominees, particularly over the highly entertaining and well-performed, yet undeniably safe American Hustle, a film which actually doesn't make you want to hide in a closet and cry for three hours.