Exceptionalist discourse and the colonization of sublime spaces: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 33, Issue 3
  • ISSN: 1466-0407
  • E-ISSN: 1758-9118



This article will examine the relationship between the visual language of the sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, and the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism. In much early discourse, the American continent is represented through the iconography of the sublime: a land of breathtaking sunsets, cascading waterfalls, towering mountains and vast verdant forests. Through such powerful and sublime scenes, the idea of the new world as ‘exceptional’ is evoked. Yet a countermovement to this is that, even as the land is celebrated, it is also being colonized – divided up and plundered for its resources.

The nineteenth-century landscape painter Thomas Cole constructed a number of traditionally ‘sublime’ canvases of stunning natural scenes and has been widely celebrated as one of America’s greatest painters of sublime nature. Yet, Cole was also vehemently opposed to ‘utilitarianism’ and expansion and railed against the damage done to the environment as American civilization expanded westward and consumed the frontier. Cole thus combined sublime landscape with a critique of expansionism by subtly subverting the human elements of his canvases, none more so than in his 1836 painting The Oxbow.

In much twentieth and twenty-first-century cinema, the frontier has been transposed to outer space and the farthest reaches of the galaxy. The forces of the marketplace and the capitalist drive to expand are still clearly evident in this extraterrestrial expansionism. Yet, the iconography of the romantic sublime is still employed by film-makers in order to convey the beauty and otherness of celestial scenes.

My article explores the link between the Cole’s representations of the American continent and two recent science fiction movies, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. I argue that the visual language of the sublime is employed not merely as a celebration of landscape but also as a means to critique and question exceptionalist discourse.


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  • Article Type: Article
Keyword(s): American; exceptionalism; Gravity; Prometheus; sublime; Thomas Cole
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