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As a film writer, you could be forgiven for having grossly overused the words “thrilling,” “tense,” “harrowing,” "unflinching," and “visceral” in recent weeks, with “claustrophobic” and “exhausting” also getting a pretty good workout. Alfonso Cuarón’s thrilling, visceral “Gravity,” Paul Greengrass’ tense, harrowing “Captain Phillips,” and now both J.C. Chandor’s claustrophobic, exhausting “All is Lost,” and Steve McQueen’s unflinching, exhausting “12 Years a Slave,” which open this week, will have seen to that. All four films boast a certain storytelling economy and a similar leanness to their approach, which belies just how different they are. But more importantly, all put the viewer through an impressively immediate, often physically grueling, life-or-death experience in which a person, pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds, has to find the resources within themselves to prevail against an implacable enemy: deep space, the cruel sea, slavery, the wrong end of a machine gun brandished by a Somali pirate. And no doubt the argument du jour will be about the relative merits of one or the other (indeed, we already kind of started on last week’s podcast). The important thing to remember is that, personal preferences aside, all four are absolutely terrific movies. It’s a good time to go to the multiplex.
The other thing they all share, of course, is their narrative of survival. The idea of man coming up against his mortality in the most extreme of circumstances is of course hardly new to cinema, however zeitgeist-y it may feel at the moment. In fact cinema, with its facility for allowing us to vicariously experience all manner of existential peril from the comfort and safety of a popcorn-strewn Row F, has long been fascinated with this form. So now that our thesauruses automatically fall open at the “thrilling” page anyway, we thought this would be a good time to take a look back at a selection of those titles that aim for that particular gut punch. Some land it more successfully than others, but all in some way offer us a peep into the abyss, after which we can pull back into the warmth, just that little bit gladder to be alive.
“Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains” (2008)
The famous and harrowing story of a rugby team from Uruguay who boarded Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, crash landed in the Chilean Andes Mountains and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive is one that has been told myriad times. In cinema, the most well-known version is “Alive” (which you can read about elsewhere in this feature), but frankly even that vivid dramatization cannot hold a candle to this first-person documentary that recounts the entire ordeal as told by the survivors of the plane. Directed by Uruguayan filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon, ‘Stranded’ is presented in standard operating procedure: talking heads, newspaper clippings, TV reports, archival footage, etc., but by never getting in the way of the story and letting the survivors tell their horrors of their ordeal, it manages to be unflinching and unimaginably brutal, but also graceful and even uplifting—a mesmerizing tale of suffering and the human spirit's capacity to endure. Gripping (for every second of its rather long 2 hours and 10 minutes) and respectful, with a distinct spiritual aura to it, it’s remarkable just how often this story has been told and yet just how suspenseful and utterly absorbing it truly is. (We’d like to meet the callous soul who isn’t weeping at the outpouring of humanity at the end of this film.) ‘Stranded’ won the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary at the 2008 Directors Guild of America Awards. Somehow it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but it’s a terrific, impossible-to-forget piece of work. [A]
(2012) What makes "The Grey" such an exceptional story of survival, as it is, is that it pits the very worst of humanity (a bunch of shifty, listless losers working on an oil pipeline in Alaska) against the very worst of nature, and sees how things play out—it's hardly a spoiler to say that nature usually wins. Liam Neeson plays a man who has just lost his wife to illness and who takes a job on the oil pipeline killing the wolves that encroach on the camp. When a plane that the workers are traveling in crashes (in a wonderfully realized sequence that starts with Neeson realizing that he shouldn't be able to see his breath inside the cabin), the men are hunted, one by one, by a pack of wolves. It's terrifying. And all the more terrifying because these guys really are the worst of the worst: the toughest, meanest motherfuckers who take jobs like this because they are largely off the books and hard to track. The men have to work together to try and outwit the wolves and survive in the horribly cold conditions; it's a schlocky thrill to watch. The movie was advertised as a dumb action movie, but it has its deeper, bleaker, and more philosophically contemplative side, with Neeson flashing back to his dying wife (in sequences that packed an added unexpected punch after the untimely death of Neeson's actual wife, Natasha Richardson). He was clearly working through some things here, and it shows—it's a strong performance in a small, strong, B-movie, and proof positive that finding the will to fight on really is half the battle. [B]
Nicolas Roeg’s odyssey-like travelogue begins like a nightmare: fractured, violent, and spatially impossible. A dying man, a burning car, and the bleak wilderness traps two young siblings in the wild, forcing them to survive on their own. Both of them begin to fulfill socially accepted roles: the younger brother begins to hunt and gather, learning he is now a protector of sorts, rebuilding their civilized upper-class background from the ground up. The older sister, meanwhile, becomes more vulnerable than previously thought, opening herself up to the sensual pleasures of the land, intimately befriending a local Aboriginal and discovering her maternal instincts towards her more reckless sibling. While “Walkabout” doesn’t skimp on the struggles of life in the wilderness, it’s telling that the most harsh scenes are both the intro, when the children's father lays waste to whatever remnants of city life they have, as well as a flashback scene that shows the division of the household from which they came. Ultimately, this bare-bones survival is preferable to the pain and suffering from whence they came, Roeg’s unforgettable tone poem argues convincingly. Roeg uses realistic documentary-like coverage of the harsh terrain, splaying it across the screen in a manner that bears his unmistakable fingerprint, and that tells us, unconventionally, that conventional life doesn’t matter nearly as much anymore. [A]
"Life of Pi" (2012)
In book form, Yann Martel’s best-seller is a stirring testament to faith and resolve, the story of a boy who conquers impossible odds through steadfast philosophy. Director Ang Lee doesn’t discard the headier notions of the story, but does end up cinematically repackaging the heart and soul of the material into a high-adventure yarn that finds Pi (Suraj Sharma) lost at sea with a hungry tiger as his companion. Though ostensibly a “kid’s film,” Lee doesn’t shy away from the obvious danger that the tiger, named Richard Parker, represents, as he quickly dines on a hyena that has already made short work of a zebra and orangutan. This isn’t a pretty, pet tiger, and this isn’t a pleasant tale of one boy’s freewheeling nautical adventures, and soon Pi faces a losing battle against the elements, one that forces him to be a man on the fly, fishing for food and learning to appease the orange man-eater sharing the boat with him. Lee’s use of 3D is borderline revolutionary, as it uses groundbreaking special effects to place the viewer at sea with Pi, turning the ocean into a gorgeous, but absolutely alien atmosphere, an otherworldly place where it almost seems like the fish are snapping out at you. Lee won the Academy Award for Best Director, and his fingerprints are all over this picture, a unique tale of one boy’s fantastical struggle against the elements, captured with the light hand of one of cinema’s premiere populist storytellers. [A-]
"The Naked Prey" (1966)
Few men have been quite as macho as Cornel Wilde is in this survivalist adventure tale, directed by Wilde himself. He plays a travel guide who leads a group of disrespectful white men into the African wilderness on an elephant hunt. All it takes is one colonial asshole to ruin the whole day, and when these modern idiots in their perfectly pressed white hunting uniforms insult the local tribe, the group becomes mincemeat. Wilde escapes the brunt of their wrath because game respects game, but the head start they give him doesn’t seem all that substantial when it’s an entire tribe versus one man. Not only does Wilde master the elements, subsisting on minimal food and protection, but he even befriends a local boy, and the two of them sing songs together. Though it is not without suspense (the picture is often a white-knuckle affair), the skill and excellence of Wilde’s mastery of the elements and his otherworldly athleticism provides the excitement. This is a chase, this is an action picture, this is film at breakneck speed. But it’s also an adventure: the suspense lies not in if Wilde will get away with his life, but how much of his own swagger he can maintain in the face of insurmountable odds. [A]