Mar 19, 2020
Why we will always love survival movies
You may have noticed that Hollywood seems awfully interested in testing our endurance lately. For the past decade, we’ve seen an increasing amount of movies whose entire purpose is to see how much punishment human beings can endure before our minds just give up and accept our inevitable fate.
No, I don’t mean the endless Transformers sequels that people keep rushing to see despite unanimous acknowledgment of their terribleness. Nor am I referring to Warner Brothers’ insistence on pushing a DC universe they know is dead on arrival. No, I’m talking about the recent outbreak of films about people being forced to stay alive in impossibly hostile environments: Gravity, The Martian, The Revenant, Captain Phillips, Life of Pi… These are just some of the most critically and commercially successful examples to grace our screens of late.
But survival films in and of themselves are not especially new. As far back as 1988, film scholar Thomas Sobchack identified it as a subgenre of adventure films, in which a group of characters find themselves isolated from civilization and have to work together to preserve social order in order to regain it. Classic examples of this subgenre include The Poseidon Adventure, Deliverance, and The Flight of the Phoenix. But there are a few noticeable differences between the survival adventures of yesteryear and the trend we’ve been seeing lately.
The most immediately obvious difference concerns the protagonists: As noted by Sobchack, classic survival movie narratives have typically been centered on societal microcosms, with each group member’s response to the conflict supposedly reflecting their respective class/culture/nationality/profession. Modern survival films, by contrast, tend to trim their focus down to one lone individual. Sure, occasionally you’ll get a movie like The Grey, in which various masculine archetypes surrender one by one to the inevitability of death, but these are fairly few and far between.
This narrative reduction follows a clear pattern of creative choices that turn what was originally just another kind of adventure film into a codified genre of its own. Instead of being a stage for interpersonal conflict and contrasting approaches to problem-solving, the inhospitable setting becomes a kind of all-powerful God dictating the conditions and restrictions of both story and shooting.
Consequently, we end up with films that are as much self-imposed challenges to their own cast and crew as they are spectacles for our senses: How much space and time can you dilate within the confines of a coffin? How much of a sinking boat can you film before it gives way to the open sea? How closely must you replicate a 19th century bear attack survivor’s ordeal for the Academy to just give Leo his Oscar already? The very act of filming becomes its own heroic gesture, in which the filmmaker showcases his virtuosity by taking the audience on a grueling ride through suffering and death, at the end of which they get to feel like survivors themselves.
This is not to suggest that these films have nothing more to them beyond surface-level thrills and self-congratulatory demonstrations of skill. But there’s no denying this conception of cinema as a kind of existential theme park ride is one of the reasons for these films’ broad appeal: Regular moviegoers get to bite their nails at the tension and marvel at the scenery, while critics and film buffs ponder the deeper themes conveyed by the story and setup. Meanwhile, the director and stars are all but guaranteed showers of praise and awards for the sheer amount of physical effort on display. It’s a win-win formula for everyone.
But lest cynicism get the better of me, let’s take a closer look at what exactly makes most of these movies work, and why audiences connect to them so much.
There’s nothing we humans love more than being told we’re special, put on Earth to dominate, control and improve it, whether by design from a greater entity or by some inherent superiority on our part. It’s a founding myth from which entire civilizations have grown and died, and one that’s especially ingrained in American culture. Most of these movies–especially the sci-fi ones like Gravity and The Martian–share the same pioneering core, the challenge of which constitutes the crux of the conflict. Cut off from the protection and validation provided by their social environment, the protagonist finds these base assumptions put to the test: are they strong enough to triumph against all odds, or must they humble themselves and accept their limitations through sacrifice or death?
This dichotomy is often accompanied by a meditation on the existence of God and what the brutal punishment endured by the protagonist may say about Him. Because these movies tend to pit man against nature, such a subtext tends to be inherent to the story, which is why it’s especially interesting to see it bleed out into actual text. In the latter case, Gravity and Life of Pi represent two contrasting approaches.
When, in Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) finds herself at her absolute lowest point, certain of her impending death with only an Inuit fisherman’s voice for company, she reveals to us that nobody ever taught her how to pray, suggesting an agnostic upbringing and outlook. Her words express a longing for God as a means of spiritual sustenance, but her subsequent salvation comes from an entirely human source: herself. Sure, you can read her vision of Ghostly George Clooney telling her how to escape as literal divine inspiration, but that interpretation doesn’t stick with the film’s decidedly realistic, science-based tone.
Life of Pi, on the other hand, wears its spiritual/religious allegories on its sleeve. The titular hero’s primary trait is, after all, an uncritical embrace of virtually all the world’s religions. As such, his extraordinary tale of surviving alone on a boat with only a tiger for company–which may or may not be a lie to cover up a much more grisly story–is chock-full of symbolism and metaphors, the most obvious being the tiger himself: A powerful, majestic, and unknowable being whose magnanimity and appeasement determine your salvation, yet disappears before giving you any kind of unequivocal acknowledgment. Regardless of whether or not his story is true, faith in a higher power is what enables Pi to come out of the ordeal alive and unbroken.
From an American perspective, it’s almost impossible not to connect these disaster scenarios and their corresponding spiritual crises to 9/11 and its repercussions on the collective western psyche. 2010’s little-seen Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds’ hapless military-industrial complex worker becomes another victim of a war he contributes to without direct participation is the most obvious example that comes to mind. But I think the appeal goes a little bit deeper than that.
Because we live in a globalized era where information surrounds us constantly, the world looks more hostile, chaotic, and violent than it ever did before. Yet conversely, our societies consistently progress towards greater security and higher living standards. Despite being more connected to each other and more likely to live to a ripe old age than ever before, we still feel scared and alone. What survival movies do is crystallize those fears and place them in a context where they’re given easy identification and resolution. At their best, they give us tools that may help us better understand and transcend them.