Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 11, 2014
Picking up where we left off last week, one of the attractions to survival dramas is watching the protagonist or protagonists cobble together their survival kit from materials brought with them into the wild or found on site. It’s the improvisation, the ingenuity, and the persistence that makes for good drama. A movie that combines all of these things is FIRST BLOOD (1982), based on the novel by David Morrell, which beget the whole silly Rambo franchise, in which Sylvester Stallone strayed farther and farther from the first principles of this movie to achieve his goals via greater and greater firepower. In this movie, all John Rambo has is a combat knife, in the handle of which is a handy dandy sewing kit/fishing line, which he uses to stitch up an injury. We can get into the problems of the Rambo knife (which, not being full tang — that is to say the steel doesn’t extend through the handle — runs the risk of breaking on you) but I’d rather concentrate on what works rather than we we think doesn’t. Rambo makes a good go of it in the Pacific Northwest woods, surviving on his own initiative and on the run from the local law. FIRST BLOOD is a movie I can go back to again and again and see as if for the first time; it’s a story about a guy trying to fit into society, who is chased into the wild by a culture that doesn’t know what to do with him, and there he finds, in flight, the place he really belongs. Like horror movies, survival dramas provide us with a wealth of teachable moments and force us to ask ourselves the hard questions… question one being: do I deserve to survive?
Not all survival movies back their own protagonists; a great many are about people who fail because of a deficiency of character or an inability to communicate, or a host of other personality flaws that point to a ruinous lack of preparation. Case in point, GERRY (2002), which is another movie I can watch and rewatch even though it presents us with circumstances that are the polar opposite of those seen in FIRST BLOOD. Based on true events that occurred in Rattlesnake Canyon, New Mexico, in 1999, GERRY thrusts two knuckleheads (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) out into the desert for a hike. Unprepared and unfamiliar with the territory, the pair becomes lost and every decision only makes the situation worse. It’s easy to laugh at these two, who barely seem literate unless they are talking about video games, but GERRY is an apt cautionary tale about the consequences of a lack of clarity. I understand a lot of Sundance attendees walked out on GERRY when it ran in competition there but I couldn’t take my eyes off the damned thing.
I went into SCENIC ROUTE (2013) thinking it would be the dinner theatre version of GERRY but I was pleasantly surprised at how involved I got and how often I laughed out loud at the antics of former college friends Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler after their truck seems to break down on some desert highway to Hell. I say seems to because the roadside caesura is really just a ploy by one of the friends to reconnect with the other… but when the truth comes out and the hard words have been said and a good Samaritan has been waved off and the cable is reconnected to the engine… the truck won’t start and the boys are in (or, rather, out) for the night. And the following day. And the following night. And on and on and on like that. Where GERRY is brilliant — getting at the nub of modern living in a disarming and unexpected way and following through with the courage of its minimalist convictions, SCENIC ROUTE is no more then clever… but, hey, in a survival situation that still ain’t bad. SCENIC ROUTE ends on a note of unexpected ambiguity, suggesting that maybe these two morons who don’t deserve to survive didn’t. Or maybe they did. But probably they didn’t.
If Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler spend much of SCENIC ROUTE bickering like an old married couple, the actual married couple (Yvonne Strahovsky and Eion Bailey) in THE CANYON (2009) don’t bicker enough. They’re one of those Young Couples in Trouble that we see so much of in the movies these days, overburdened with ennui, needing a larger purpose to give their lives meaning and, boy, do they ever get what they wished for here. When their guide (Will Patton) in a trip through the Grand Canyon succumbs to multiple rattle snake bites, these two greenhorns attempt to find their way back to civilization, only to become hopelessly lost in the labyrinth. There is a wonderfully shot fall as the two attempt to climb out of the canyon, a gnarly field amputation, and predatory wolves but much of THE CANYON feels attenuated and drab and that the filmmakers aren’t interested in the protagonists’ chances for survival, so predestined is their sad fate. (I’m broadening the presumed definition of “sad fate” so that you might still go into this one without knowing precisely what happens at the end.) THE CANYON might remind you, as it does me of…
… OPEN WATER (2003), a somewhat more tenable husband-and-wife-in-danger drama that manages to be far less deterministic than THE CANYON even though one knows, going in, that the film is based on a real life disappearance situation in which He and She divers vanished off the coast of Australia in 1998. The man and wife protagonists of OPEN WATER (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are far more capable than those of THE CANYON, more assured, better prepared, a better team overall… but at the end of the day they’re just as screwed when circumstances (a botched head count on an undersea group dive) leave them adrift in shark-invested waters. I haven’t seen the film in a decade or so but I don’t remember there being a surplus of bickering, which always kills a survival tale for me, often rooting the narrative in ideas about survival rather than methods. I don’t mean to say protagonists caught in the wild don’t have their issues, or that these issues shouldn’t be aired, but there definitely is a line to cross (at least with me) and OPEN WATER steers well clear of that. There are no bad guys in this film, no contrivances… just human behavior in all its glorious imperfections, which spells doom for our protagonists who craved isolation and are punished by the gods with exactly that.
An earlier entry in the husband and wife variety of survival movie is the Australian LONG WEEKEND (1978), in which a sniping suburban mister and missus (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) decamp to an isolated beach, where nature closes in on them, cutting them off from civilization, sealing their doom. Mind you, the so-called protagonists here deserve what’s coming to them. Grade A land-rapers whose carbon footprint can be seen from space, these two hate each other as much as they seem to hate themselves but in taking it out on nature they cross the Rubicon and are punished for it. As social commentary, LONG WEEKEND is trenchant and self-lacerating (though the script is by American ex-pat Everett DeRoche) but as a survival movie it falls down because we aren’t encouraged to root for these two. And that makes LONG WEEKEND a bit of a slog for me. I haven’t yet seen the recent remake, NATURE’S GRAVE (2010).
Similarly unsupportable are the displaced Angelenos in THIRST (2010), who truck into the high desert for the purpose of a photo shoot and wind up beached when their monster truck rolls. Ultra low budget in a way that isn’t admirable, THIRST does add a few medical kinks to the standard narrative, including an emergency trepanation and an inspired use for saline breast implants, but it’s still a frustrating viewing experience. I’d much rather sit through an episode of I SHOULDN’T BE ALIVE, which gives you the same serving of Man/Woman Against Nature but without the empty calories of character development. I felt the same way about FROZEN (2010), in which three weekend skiers are left to hang on a ski lift after hours; it’s not a bad survival story but I would have red penciled the STAR WARS references as character development. Really, in a survival situation, nobody needs a backstory.
More sympathetic are the unlucky boaters in THE REEF (2010), whose vessel capsizes off the Great Barrier Reef, leaving them at the mercy of sharks. (If the movies are to be believed, the Great Barrier Reef is like Jackson County Jail. Avoid at all costs!) Happily, treading water as they must (and, on occasion, screaming in abject terror or agony), there isn’t as much time here for bickering and bantering. The characters are faced with a gauntlet of complications and make decisions — good or bad — accordingly. You might say that THE REEF is a ripoff of OPEN WATER but I prefer to think of it as a reworking of the original true events, opened up for more characters. Like the best survival movies, THE REEF doesn’t seek to punish its characters for some First World wrongdoing but rather asks us to observe their plight, note their judgment calls, and ask ourselves — in all honesty and humility — would we fare as well? Or would we persevere where they fail? (Armchair quarterbacking is the name of the game with survival movies – check the IMDb, where everyone chiming in with their opinions on a given film have all the answers.) THE REEF was directed by Andrew Traucki, who had a few years earlier co-directed…
… BLACK WATER (2007). For my money, the best giant croc film of a bunch that included the lousy PRIMEVAL (2007) and the better-than-average ROGUE (also 2007) boils survival down to basics. Trapped in a remote swamp with zero gear and equally dismal chances, three Australians attempt to evade and even outwit a massive crocodile on its own turf. Ask any survival trainer what the best tool for survival is and they’ll all agree: your brains. BLACKWATER presents us with three protagonists who lack anything but the most rudimentary skill set and asks us to assess their chances. The film succeeds for me where the others either failed or fell off because the croc in question isn’t a JAWS-sized anomaly, just an apex predator doing what comes naturally; the protagonists succeed by following suit, by shrugging off the useless attitudes and prejudices of civilization and adopting an approach that works.
For this reason I really liked the more recent ALL IS LOST (2013), which stars Robert Redford as a yachtsman whose solo voyage is scuttled by a close encounter with the most unlikely piece of flotsam in cinema history. We get hints of character development — Redford seems to be playing a man whose affluence has isolated him, pushed him off on his own to revel in a rich man’s pastime, to drink better-than-decent wine and read unencumbered by needy loved ones. He’s in his element at sea, or so he thinks, when he suddenly has to start falling back on his skill set to keep his head above water. Like the protagonists in OPEN WATER, Redford’s loner is punished by being given precisely what he has asked for and his struggle, the seemingly endless chain of tasks and tactics to which he must bend, are his lifeline back to a world he comes to realize he needs very much in his life. It’s great seeing Redford put his all into the role, which brings to mind…
… his performance forty years earlier in JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972), the fact-based (well, as interpreted by John Milius) tale of a traumatized veteran of the Mexican-American war who means to make a living as a mountain man. The film is about Johnson’s learning curve, his mistakes and successes, his accomplishments and losses. Redford is at his best when playing characters who make it up and figure it out as they go along; you might even shoehorn into this company THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) which, though not set in the wilderness (per se) is still a survival story about a protagonist relying on his tools, his skills, and his wits. JEREMIAH JOHNSON seems to anticipate much of FIRST BLOOD, with Johnson becoming the target of a veritable army of antagonists and giving back as good and better than he gets, but David Morrell began writing the source novel in 1968, long before JEREMIAH JOHNSON was on the table. I guess these narratives are just in our blood. And speaking of blood…
… there is a growing subgenre of horror in which hikers, backpackers, climbers, spelunkers, and cavers meet various man-made calamities while out getting a bit of exercise. Derivative of DELIVERANCE, perhaps, these films split their plot points between the hazards of adventuring and the perils of being targeted by a predator. The French-made VERTIGE (HIGH LANE, 2009) pits a group of mountain climbers against a mountain-dwelling cannibal who acknowledges their humanity only vis a vis his next hot lunch. HIGH LANE has it, for my taste, over movies like WRONG TURN (2003) and its sequels or CABIN FEVER (2002) because the protagonists have stuff to do, they have practical, hands-on concerns, which makes them more capable and potentially sympathetic pawns. But I find that with movies such as this, and I would throw into the mix another mountain-based survival thriller…
… A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (2010), that I tend to be more completely drawn in and satisfied by the first third of the movie, in which peril comes from the activity at hand rather than from the malevolence of the external force (here, kidnappers/mercenaries rather than monstrous mountain men). I love the gear and the derring-do and the inevitable cock-ups that leave characters dangling or scrambling… bringing in a fiend as a second act complication often feels like an anti-climax. Paradoxically, I did not feel the same way about THE DESCENT (2002), in which a group of women friends drop into some Appalachian hellhole to come face to face (well, in the dark) with a race of subterranean beings. Maybe I just loved seeing a group of female protagonists using gear and getting along quite well, all things considered — and reaching out to help and save one another, if only for a time.
On the manly flipside of THE DESCENT, Liam Neeson leads a group of pipeline workers through the Alaskan wilderness to an anticipated safe haven, a journey complicated by the attention of a pack of hungry wolves, in THE GREY (2011). The snowy setting can’t help but bring to mind ALIVE (1992), a chronicle of the Andes survivors’ 72-day ordeal, or the earlier, Mexican-financed take on the tale, SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES (SURVIVE!, 1976) — “the most shocking episode in the history of human survival” — but here the protagonists face the prospect not of eating one another but of being eaten before they can reach safety. It’s a simple logline complicated, as the best of these tales are, by details and particulars. By my own calculus I should like CAST AWAY (2000) better — after all, it’s just Tom Hanks getting by on an uncharted island, no villain, no monster… and yet THE GREY betters the example in my mind, having to do almost exclusively with problem-solving as a bulwark against oblivion.
There is also some strange mental alchemy behind why I prefer the Werner Herzog documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1997), the chronicle of an American pilot shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War, to Herzog’s later Hollywood dramatization RESCUE DAWN (2006). In the end, the choice of why you prefer this movie to that, this story to that, why you discuss this one and neglect that one, is like the choice of a survival plan — highly personal. I hope I’ve at least given you some insights as to why the survival drama is one of my favorite cinematic excursions, providing us as it does with the potential, through the vicarious peril of being lost, of finding ourselves.
Part 2 of 2. To be continued. Ha!
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