Kristin Thompson Says 'Gravity' Is Better Than '2001' and 'Napoleon'

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by Sam Adams
November 7, 2013 12:51 PM
5 Comments
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Those who see Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity as a game-changer gained a powerful ally today in Kristin Thompson, who with husband David Bordwell co-authored the foundational text, Film Art: An Introduction. Thompson, who also wrote a book on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings cycle, is a formalist critic, but her first post (of two) on the film focus on the film's story, especially the way it uses classical conventions to make viewers more at ease with its technical innovations, which will be the subject of her second post.

David and I have often claimed that Hollywood cinema has a certain tolerance for novelty, innovation, and even experiment, but that such departures from convention are usually accompanied by a strong classical story to motivate the strangeness for popular audiences. (This assumption is central to our e-book on Christopher Nolan.)  Gravity has such a story, though Cuaron is remarkably successful at minimizing its prominence. The film's construction privileges excitement, suspense, rapid action, and the universally remarked-upon sense of immersion alongside the character in a situation of disorienting weightlessness and constant change.

Thompson also throws in with those who see Gravity drawing heavily on the history of experimental filmmakers like Michael Snow and Jordan Belson -- more successfully, she adds, than past narrative/avant-garde hybrids as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Abel Gance's Napoleon. (Here we pause briefly to let the screaming die down.) On first viewing, I felt that Gravity fell between two stools: It either needed to embrace minimalism more fully and cut out the expositional monologues -- which I admit would have been a practical impossibility given the restrictions imposed by its budget -- or work up a more sustained narrative and not just the signposts of one. But Thompson argues that Cuaron masterfully balances Hollywood classicism and aesthetic ground-breaking, at length and with exquisite precision, throwing the film's detractors back on their heels.

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5 Comments

  • Tivan | November 8, 2013 10:29 AMReply

    The film industry is desperate to prove to itself and everybody else that it is growing and not on the decline and they employ all manner of critics, website editors, hack directors, etc. to help them sell this.

  • Mark | November 8, 2013 9:06 AMReply

    Gravity, whilst technically impressive, faded from my memory after 24 hours. 2001 A Space Odyssey is still going strong after 40 years.

    A rather strange case of hyperbole going on here methinks.

  • film1 | November 8, 2013 2:49 AMReply

    you're educated. how can you think gravity is anything but rubbish

  • Duke6 | January 19, 2014 10:41 PM

    Good film , but nowhere near 2001! Sorry.

  • Kristin Thompson | November 7, 2013 5:57 PMReply

    I appreciate the extra traffic your link is sending my blog entry. On the other hand, I wish you had used a different headline for your piece. The headline singles out a parenthetical remark that has nothing to do with the argument of my essay. I included the remark only because I was quoting J. Hoberman's comments about GRAVITY's experimental qualities. I wanted to signal that, while I agree with his comments in general, I don't wish to suggest that I consider all of the films he mentions to be as significant as he does. Moreover, the headline highlights something that your essay barely mentions. I would prefer that people who read my entry focus on its main points, not a provocative but incidental aside.

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