After early praise on the film festival circuit, Gravity, otherwise known as George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as Astronauts (!), stormed the box office, breaking October records in its first weekend (grossing $55 million) and staying on top its second week of release, topping Captain Phillips.
The tension riddled events which make up the film are creating word of mouth buzz and combined with the special and visual effects, Gravity has created quite the spectacle.
Sandra Bullock has received praise for her performance. Many film critics and culture writers are quick to credit her with drawing in audiences, but it’s doubtful the casting of Bullock is the sole reason movie-goers are lining up for Gravity. It’s more likely the action and heightened suspense which is creating box office buzz for the film. Although critics are quick to heap praise on the film, the writing and character development felt flat and underdeveloped for an awards season film.
But first: The Box Office Phenomenon (Or Not)
Gravity is not the first female-led action film that has done well at the box office. Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver, cost $11 million to make, but grossed $3 million at the box office on its opening weekend in 1979. Its sequel, Aliens, directed by James Cameron, cost $18 million to produce, but made $10 million its first weekend. Cameron followed in the same tradition with The Terminator, a low-budget action film costing $7 million, which then went on to be one of the most successful franchises of the last thirty years. Terminator grossed four million opening weekend and three months later had made $38 million at the box office.
But even if audiences aren’t going to see the film purely because of Bullock (or Weaver or Linda Hamilton), Gravity proves in the day and age of superhero trilogies and reboots and The Avengers universe, audiences will go see action films which have female leads.
Studios seem determined to insist the success or failure of movies has to do whether it will draw in a male audience. To draw in a male audience, they cast male leads. But if a movie is well done, no matter the gender of the lead, not just male audiences, but audiences (men and women) will go to see it. For every Avengers or Batman reboot that does well at the box office, there are just as many flops like Green Lantern (2011), Hulk (2008), or Batman & Robin (1997).
Many seem to think Gravity is going to be the film which finally breaks the studio’s vicious cycle of ignoring female moviegoers and convinces studios to greenlight more films with gender parity in mind.
Gravity’s predecessors, both female-led and successful at the box office, haven’t been able to break through the studio’s hearts and minds, so to speak. There’s always buzz in the press about whether current It Film is going to be the one, but then nothing changes and status quo resumes.
Look at Bridesmaids ($26 million opening weekend) or this summer’s The Heat ($39 million). In January, Jessica Chastain was the lead in two top grossing films, Zero Dark Thirty and Mama. Kathryn Bigelow, who directed Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, which has now made almost $200 million worldwide, didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination. Three years earlier, she’d won Best Director for The Hurt Locker but is still getting snubbed by the Hollywood boys’ club. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first film in the Twilight series, which grossed a stunning $69 million on its opening weekend, but then she was replaced by a male director for the sequel.
Certainly Gravity is a big step, along with Zero Dark Thirty, Mama, and The Heat. Any movie with a female lead which does well at the box office is a success, but changing the studio system is a long, slow process. With more directors like Cuaron and Bigelow sticking to their vision for the film, maybe studios will finally take note. In Cuaron’s and Bigelow’s cases, if they want a female lead, they get a female lead, and if the studios won’t finance it for the gender reason, they find financing elsewhere.
Astronaut Ryan Stone: Feminist?
In the name of women, Gravity might be a box office success, but shouting about Ryan Stone (Bullock) as some sort of feminist revelation might be a stretch.
The film isn’t a case study for strong storytelling. The script casts Stone as the rookie astronaut versus the veteran astronaut on the verge of retirement, Matt Kowalski (Clooney). The story of Stone’s survival might not be quite as compelling if she wasn’t a rookie—she’d have more familiarity with the shuttles and their systems—but the rookie/veteran trope was a little grating, especially since the woman was cast as the rookie and the man as the veteran.
One could argue that Stone relies rather heavily on a male figure throughout the first half of the film. Even later in the film, he reappears in a vision to offer her advice which will save her life. So are the decisions she makes purely her own or reliant on a male father figure?
In addition to the studios eventually getting the message that women leads are marketable, maybe they will also realize audiences are smarter and more capable than they once were. Moviegoing audiences also watch television and over the past twenty years, television writing has gotten infinitely smarter and deeper. If movie audiences demand a higher level of writing in films, it could take film, especially genre films, past the usual tropes and develop complex characters. Gravity has plenty heart-pounding tension but very little character development.