The theme of individual crisis and survival runs through recent Hollywood offerings
Having endured a summer of existential threats to the planet — zombie hordes, alien invaders, the usual stuff — moviegoers can now settle in for an autumn of more intimately scaled ordeals. Spectacles of collective apocalypse, the staple of the blockbuster economy, give way to individual stories of adversity and the struggle to survive in limited space. Superheroes step aside in favour of ordinary (albeit highly competent) people equipped with nerve, resourcefulness and impressive but not always reliable technology. Their arch-enemies are the laws of nature and political economy, abstract forces that take the form of lethal satellite debris, heavy weather and desperate pirates.
Survival is the theme of the season, or at least of Captain Phillips, All Is Lost and Gravity. These movies have been praised for the way they immerse audiences in the details of heroic feats of endurance. But like most movies, even the most ostentatiously naturalistic, these are also fantasies, tapping into the unacknowledged longings and superstitions of the audience. In savouring these tales of danger, we might wonder just how safe we really are, and how safe we should be.
Somewhere off the eastern coast of Africa, Tom Hanks (in the person of Capt. Richard Phillips, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a mouthful of New England vowels) finds himself trapped on a container ship, taken hostage by a gang of Somali buccaneers. Not far from where Phillips and Muse are locked in their nerve-shattering standoff — in an adjacent room at the multiplex, and also in another part of the Indian Ocean — Robert Redford fights a lonely battle with the elements. A character without a name or a history beyond what can be gleaned from his face, the wedding band on his finger and the tasteful décor of his expensive yacht, he spends the virtually wordless duration of J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost entirely by himself. After his boat is rammed by a wayward shipping container, he sets about patching the hull, setting the storm jib and eventually jumping into an inflatable lifeboat.
Up above, Sandra Bullock is floating in the zero-gravity terror of Gravity. Like Redford’s character, her NASA mission specialist, Ryan Stone, faces practical challenges against an allegorical backdrop. The sea and the void of outer space are thematic mirrors of each other, symbols of the sublime and the unknown, the inhuman power that