The Martian

The latest round of Oscar nominations offers evidence that 21st century filmmakers and their audiences are devoted to a certain narrative: the survival tale.

Three of the eight Best Picture candidates fall into this category—sci-fi thriller “The Martian,” wilderness adventure “The Revenant” and intimate mother-and-child drama “Room.”

On the surface, given their genres, they might seem to have little in common. But the stories they tell all involve individuals separated from society and struggling under harsh, life-threatening conditions. Their lead characters’ instinct to fight back and never give up is also similar. In the case of Leonardo DiCaprio’s fur trapper in “The Revenant,” it is his dead wife and son. For Brie Larson’s sexually abused captive, forced to live in a tiny garden shed for five years in “Room,” it is her unyielding devotion to her young son, who has yet to experience the outside world. For Matt Damon, as a left-for-dead astronaut stranded on Mars, it is his dedication to his mission family that refuses to give up on rescuing him.

A24 "Room"

The primary obstacles they struggle against aren’t human foes, even as DiCaprio seeks revenge against Tom Hardy’s scheming fellow trapper and Larson is a prisoner of her twisted abductor, who rapes her repeatedly. Instead, all three characters must overcome their own doubts and fears in order to believe there is a reason to fight back and that they are capable of doing so.

The number of these types of sagas have been cropping up with more regularity in the Academy Award race in the past couple years. They include 2007’s “Into the Wild,” which was nominated for two Oscars, and 2010’s “127 Hours,” which earned six nods including Best Picture. Such survival yarns continued to appear in 2012 with “Life of Pi,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and even “Amour”—if you stretch the definition—in the Best Picture lineup, along with the Best Actress nomination for Naomi Watts in the real-life tsunami survival tale “The Impossible.”

The true landmark year for this genre, though, was 2014, when “12 Years a Slave” was named Best Picture against other survivalist entries as “Captain Phillips” and “Gravity.” Last year’s contest featured “Wild,” with Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon pitting herself against the great outdoors.  

Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

You can locate the roots of this current trend in earlier Best Picture nominees such as 1975’s “Jaws,” whose most exciting and relatable moments arrived in the last third of the film when the action boils down to three very different men in a boat vs. a monster-sized shark.

Another early example is “Apollo 13,” which certainly was an influence on “The Martian” and “Gravity.”

But the film that probably did the most to kick off this run is 2000’s “Cast Away,” Robert Zemeckis’ then-novel account of a lone survivor of a small aircraft crash who lives for years on an uninhabited South Pacific island before being rescued. “Cast Away” was nominated for just two Oscars—Best Actor for star Tom Hanks and Best Sound. But what was considered a risky venture at the time would go on to be one of the biggest-grossers of the year, taking in $430 million—right behind the No. 2 biggest hit of 2000, Best Picture champ “Gladiator.” Ridley Scott’s ancient epic kicked off an immediate revival of that art form. But the success of “Cast Away” took a bit longer to bear fruit.

Cast Away

One can arguably judge each decade’s taste in cinematic narratives by which titles made the cut as contenders for the Academy’s top prize. The ’60s had their lavish musicals like “The Sound of Music” and historical epics such as “A Man for All Seasons.” The '70s had their crime stories, including “The Godfather” and its sequel, as well as issue dramas like “Norma Rae” and “Coming Home.” The '80s leaned towards dramedies, such as “Terms of Endearment” and “Rain Man,” or super-sized biopics, including “Out of Africa” and “The Last Emperor.” The '90s celebrated the anti-hero in the form of “Unforgiven” and “American Beauty.”

The effect of “Cast Away” reached the shores of TV first, both in the form of reality shows like “Survivor” and fictional series such as “Lost.” But the events of 9/11 not only had a profound effect on our daily lives but also how we view the world. And that also affected the types of films being made by Hollywood. Initially, cultural pundits  predicted an end to irony, a boom in uplifting entertainment and an avoidance of violent films—which, judging by what’s in cinemas today, never happened.

What did occur was a shift in how we consume our information and a hunger to see stories that stir our emotions in very human ways with at least an edge of truth that we can relate to.

Below, four reasons why survivor tales have grown in popularity in the early 21st century:

"American Crime Story" - O.J.
Marion Curtis "American Crime Story" - O.J.

The advent of 24-hour TV news coverage:  CNN came into its own during its coverage of the Gulf War in the early ‘90s. But even network stations dropped its regular programming to focus on such news events as  the hearings involving the sexual harassment allegations made against Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas in 1991 and O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed chase in a white Bronco in 1994 (soon to be the subject of FX's "American Crime Story").

But after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, nearly every major network and news outlet aired nothing but stories related to the plane hijackings for days on end. And, invariably, the tales of tragic horror were balanced by moving personal accounts of survivors, good Samaritans and heroic first responders. As a nation, we found hope and solace in these real-life struggles.

And many still cling to these true stories of survival in order to offset the large-scale acts of violence and disaster that seem to take place with alarming regularity, whether Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012 or the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. It makes sense that movies would reflect our desire to bolster our belief in that we can overcome whatever odds we face with these very human stories.  

Spider-Man 2

The glut of superheroes: When “Spider-Man” landed in theaters in 2002 and launched the wave of comic-book crusaders, which continue to multiply at an alarming rate, part of the film’s success at the time was attributed to the fact that Peter Parker was just an average guy who evolved into an avenger after being bit by a spider—a.k.a “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”

And while the enthusiasm for such astonishing feats of derring-do has yet to wane, there is one problem with these super beings. You always know they will conquer most any foe that comes their way. And what with reboots and origin stories, they can be reincarnated countless times anyway. That might be the way to conquer the box office. But if you want to compete during awards season, there has to be more at stake. Hence, the popularity of the survival tale—especially those that are based in part on truth.

The Dark Knight

The ongoing villain problem: In these volatile PC times, it’s difficult not to offend when relying on what could be considered stereotypical depictions of baddies that are not based on true stories. And Nazis are too easy these days. Studios have to be careful about turning off potential ticket buyers, especially considering social media users are not too shy to complain early and often about such matters.

But survival tales often rely on more than just human foes to stand in the way of their heroes, such as natural disasters, crime-related circumstances or the challenges of the great outdoors.

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant'
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant'

Such roles are acting nirvana:  If you want to impress Academy voters, donning a cape and tights is not the way to go. Instead, you need to show human frailties and suffer for your art both onscreen and off. Why is Leonardo DiCaprio considered a shoo-in for best actor for “The Revenant” after missing out four other times in that category?

Yes, he is terrific in the film in a near-silent role, emoting pain, suffering and perseverance with every breath and step he takes. But, even more importantly, it wasn’t just  his character who had to endure bouts of illness and frigid temperatures after being nearly mauled to death by a bear. He did, too, as he has related in countless interviews—including the fact he actually ate raw bison liver in one scene. Guzzling booze in “The Wolf of Wall Street” just can’t compete.

"Ace in the Hole"
"Ace in the Hole"

Actually, the godfather of these sorts of tales might be the late, great Billy Wilder, who died in 2002. While the filmmaker is best known for his more comedic offerings with insight into human nature, such as “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment,” as well as explorations of its darker side, such as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard,” it was two of his least successful—if more experimental—efforts that are now considered influential classics, and were early examples of the kinds of survival stories that are popular today.

First was the scathing account of journalistic opportunism from 1951 known as “Ace in the Hole,” in which Kirk Douglas’ sleazy reporter manages to delay the rescue of a man trapped after a cave collapse for his own gain. It anticipates the exploitation of these types of ongoing human-interest stories  that current media outlets feast upon.

The other film, often cited as an inspiration for “Cast Away,” is “The Spirit of St. Louis,” a 1957 account of Charles Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927 that mainly relied on the appeal of James Stewart navigating alone in the cockpit for much of its running time as a selling point.

Although what is now lauded as a classic was considered an expensive failure at the time of its release—not helped by the fact that Stewart, then 48, was playing the 25-year-old  aviation pioneer—it nonetheless earned a supportive review from Time, which read in part: "Stewart, for all his professional, 48-year-old boyishness, succeeds almost continuously in suggesting what all the world sensed at the time: that Lindbergh's flight was not the mere physical adventure of a rash young 'flying fool' but rather a journey of the spirit, in which, as in the pattern of all progress, one brave man proved himself for all mankind as the paraclete of a new possibility.”

And that very same spirit is what survival tales hope to capture today.