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.