(SPOILERS: World War Z, Gravity)
Happy Halloween! (It’s Halloween when I’m writing this… I don’t know when you’re actually reading it, of course.) In honor of the holiday I thought I’d discuss a couple of movies that did a great job of creating tension this year. I’m serious about spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t seen World War Z or Gravity, you might want to wait to read this!
Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) was one of the best movies of the year. World War Z (screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof) was one of the most enjoyable surprises of the year. Though they are vastly different stories, it occurred to me they operated in structurally similar ways.
Both movies take an essentially likeable character and put them in a fight for survival. Both are structured as a succession of suspense sequences. Of the two, Gravity is the superior movie by a long shot, but both effectively use suspense to create a fun ride for the audience.
Let’s start with those likable main characters. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is established as a talented scientist and doctor, an inherently heroic character. Moreover, she is the rookie astronaut, out of her depth, suffering nausea from the microgravity. She’s a vulnerable underdog, also someone we root for. And given her situation, someone we identify with as non-astronauts (unless of course you happen to be an astronaut.)
Gerry in World War Z is a loving father and husband, and has some mysterious spy/agent background that will cause him to be summoned to assist the war against the zombies. So he’s a hero and a good guy trying to save the world. We can root for that.
In truth, both characters are pretty thinly defined. Ryan is more complex, and is developed more as the story progresses. There is some nice use of specific detail (the story she tells about her daughter’s lost shoe, for example) that implies the bigger life behind this story. Specifics make the character feel real. And considering Gravity plays out in near-real time, it would probably be unbelievable to cram any more character information into it.
It turns out suspense movies like these don’t really need enormously complex characters, they just need likeable, believable characters to put into jeopardy. This is one type of movie that really benefits from movie stars in the lead roles. We like Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock. We don’t want them to die!
As I said, structurally the movies are a series of suspense sequences. World War Z has the escape-the-city sequence, military-base sequence, Jerusalem sequence, airplane sequence and infested-medical-research-facility sequence. Gravity has the getting-back-to-the-shuttle sequence, getting-to-the-ISS (International Space Station) sequence, getting-to-the-Chinese-station sequence, and reentry sequence.
Each of these sequences is virtually a self-contained miniature suspense movie. The danger with this approach is that the film could become episodic. So how do these filmmakers avoid that danger?
World War Z is structured as a mystery. Gerry is trying to find the cause of the zombie outbreak so they can figure out a way to fight it. Each sequence ends in a clue that gets him closer to the solution while simultaneously leading to the next sequence.
In Gravity, Ryan’s emotional growth helps connect the steps. This is where stronger character work helps. Early on she wants to give up, telling Matt to let her go and save himself. Over the course of the movie she decides to fight for her survival, has that decision tested, and finally commits to living. Each sequence forces her to take more forceful action to avoid death.
Both movies also make use of the ticking clock concept. In World War Z, Gerry’s family has been granted shelter on a battleship only because he’s agreed to take on this mission. As time goes on, the powers-that-be decide they can’t continue sheltering the family. If Gerry doesn’t finish his job soon, his family will be zombie food! (This is also a great illustration of how personal stakes – the family – are more powerful than huge global stakes – zombies might wipe out humanity.)
In Gravity, debris is blowing everything in space apart. The one remaining vehicle capable of reentry isn’t going to be around forever. There is a ninety-minute interval between encounters with the debris field, a ticking clock Ryan tracks on her wristwatch. Moreover, it is made clear that there is a limited supply of oxygen in these various vehicles. Time is running out for Ryan!
Which brings me to the individual sequences. Both movies use a combination of action and suspense techniques. Ticking clocks are again a big part of this. For example, in the getting-back-to-the-shuttle and getting-to-the-ISS sequences in Gravity, the air in Ryan’s space suit is running out. She gives periodic updates to Matt on how low her supply is getting. As she struggles to reach the airlock at the end of these sequences, she’s out of oxygen and we see through camera effects how her vision is narrowing and blurring as she starts to suffocate.
Important to good suspense is the slow build, escalating obstacles, and twists and turns. Look at the military-base sequence in World War Z. Gerry has to get back to his plane, but there are zombies out there, so they have to move quietly. The team sneaks carefully out to the tarmac, the tension building… and then Gerry’s phone rings. Things get worse and worse as characters are killed and Gerry barely makes it into the cockpit.
Or the ISS scene in Gravity. We are relieved when Ryan makes it into the ISS and gets her helmet off just before she passes out. She still has a pretty huge problem to overcome, but for the moment at least, she’s safe. However as she floats through the station, we see a piece of equipment generate a spark. Soon there’s a fire. Ryan grabs a fire extinguisher – but the force of using it in microgravity throws her against a wall, knocking her out.
Obviously, most stories are not constructed from interlocking suspense sequences. And you would certainly be taking the wrong message from this analysis if you think I’m saying you don’t need to develop complex characters! However these two movies provide good examples of how to use suspense to engage and thrill the audience. You can incorporate similar techniques into sequences in your stories, even if they aren’t built this way.
P.S. – there’s an interesting article here about Cuaron’s approach to storytelling in Gravity. Despite the interviewer’s bias against Hollywood suits, it’s clear from Cuaron’s response he does not share that bias. But it does reveal a lot about the potential pitfalls of the Hollywood development process.