Richard J. Leskosky: A new film genre: Solitary survival

Richard J. Leskosky: A new film genre: Solitary survival

Hollywood loves heroes — whether based on fact as in "Lone Survivor" or completely fictitious as in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" — who face apparently overwhelming odds yet triumph in the end.

In recent years, though, we have seen this notion given more serious treatment and pushed to the extreme of focusing almost exclusively on one character's desperate attempts to survive in a hostile environment. And those movies have nonetheless achieved both popularity and prominence.

This year's Academy Award nominations, for instance, include two: "Gravity" and "All Is Lost." So we can reasonably consider this a new genre, the solitary survival film.

In these films, a single individual finds himself or herself in a life-threatening situation with no possibility of outside help or rescue. The threat does not come from other humans but rather from the immediate environment itself.

Paradoxically, the protagonist is trapped in a confined space in the midst of a vast wasteland. The only hope for survival resides in the hero's own abilities, perseverance and daring.

Ultimately, this sort of tale goes back to Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel "Robinson Crusoe," which itself has been adapted directly in several film versions (from the classic 1946 "Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" by Luis Bunuel to the 1964 "Robinson Crusoe on Mars").

But although Defoe's tale might have provided a basis for this genre, neither it nor its adaptations fit the pattern of this new genre. Crusoe was stranded on his desert island for decades, but he was not in immediate danger of death — and eventually the native he names Friday turns up to become his companion.

A few other films prefigure this genre, though they also do not completely fit the pattern. "The Old Man and the Sea" (1958), adapted from Ernest Hemingway's short novel, earned Spencer Tracy an Oscar nomination as the old fisherman out in the gulf stream trying to catch a huge marlin and then defend it from sharks.

Cornel Wilde's "The Naked Prey" (1966), Oscar-nominated for its screenplay, casts Wilde as a colonial era safari guide whose party runs afoul of a local tribe. After the tribe kills the rest of the party, they set the guide loose without clothes or weapons and proceed to hunt him.

In Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 "Lifeboat," nine people struggle for survival in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic during World War II after their ship and an attacking German submarine are both sunk. But that's too many would-be survivors, and a concealed human threat menaces the group in addition to the hostile environment and the limited supplies.

Of course, "2001: A Space Odyssey" ends with astronaut Bowman stranded outside his spaceship and continuing the mission on his own. That, however, constitutes only about the last quarter of the film, and thrillers or action films often whittle the roster down to a single survivor for the last reel.

No, it's really only in the 21st century that all these elements have coalesced into a viable genre. It represents, after all, something of a risky proposition for a studio.

On the positive side, the greatly reduced cast and settings presumably mean lower expenses. But it also means that a single actor has to hold the audience's attention for the whole length of the film.

And filmmakers have to figure out a way to convey the protagonist's thoughts to the audience and explain what he or she is doing or has to accomplish in order to survive. Voice-over? Have the character talk to himself/herself or to someone on the radio? All are tricky to carry off successfully.

In "Cast Away" (2000), a modern Crusoe tale minus Friday, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is stranded on the traditional desert island. He talks to a soccer ball on which he has painted a face. Here, Noland at least has an island to move about on, and the chief threat is more to his sanity (through loneliness) than to his actual survival. Also, the film covers four years on the island.

Things become more extreme in 2010, when time becomes a crucial factor, adding to the threat imposed by the environment.

In Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," based on an actual incident, a boulder pins Aron Ralston (James Franco) in a narrow canyon in the middle of a Utah desert. His only hope (Spoiler Alert!) lies in being able to amputate his own arm. This film finally brings all the elements, including the confined setting within a vast open area, together.

But it was another, much less seen, 2010 film that took the claustrophobic setting to its logical and horrific extreme. "Buried," directed by Rodrigo Cortes and written by Chris Sparling, takes place entirely within the coffin-like box in which Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried. Conroy, a civilian trucker working in Iraq, awakens after an attack on his convoy to find himself buried alive by a terrorist who demands a $5 million ransom for his release.

"Buried" pretty much defines minimalist filmmaking. Reynolds is the only actor we see directly, the only setting is his coffin, and the film plays out in real time. It's grim and gripping, but don't see it if you're all at all susceptible to claustrophobia.

Ang Lee's 2012 "Life of Pi" casts its young hero adrift with a tiger in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. At times, Pi must retreat to an even smaller raft to avoid being devoured.

Last year produced two more examples, both with major actors. In Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a NASA science adviser who becomes the sole survivor of a collision with orbiting space debris. She has to figure out how to get aboard a functional spacecraft and return to Earth before her limited oxygen runs out or the deadly cloud of debris returns. (Note: "Gravity" continues the Hollywood tradition of giving a female scientist a masculine first name.)

In "All Is Lost," Robert Redford's character even lacks a name. The credits call him merely "Our Man," and there is virtually no one else in the cast. Our Man also has very little dialogue as he tries to survive in a small craft in a storm-ridden Indian Ocean.

All of these films have received critical praise and, with the exception of "Buried," which is perhaps too minimalist and grim for general audiences, have done well at the box office.

"Cast Away" earned Tom Hanks another best actor Oscar nomination and also received a nomination for sound. "127 Hours" earned Oscar nominations for best actor, film editing, music (original score), music (original song), writing (adapted screenplay) and best picture.

"Life of Pi" won Oscars for cinematography, directing, music (original score) and visual effects and was also nominated for film editing, music (original song), production design, sound editing, sound mixing, writing (adapted screenplay) and best picture.

This time around, Oscar nominations went to "Gravity" for best actress, cinematography, film editing, music (original score), production design, sound editing, sound mixing, directing and best picture. And "All Is Lost" received a nomination for sound editing, and many surprised commentators called it a snub or an oversight that Redford was not nominated for his performance.

With all the acclaim A-list-staffed examples of this sort of film have been receiving, you can expect to see more low-budget projects trying to capitalize on this popularity. The appeal of low costs and relatively quick shooting schedules will be too much to resist. But whether the small studios will be able to find good enough scripts and performers will no doubt present a major problem.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film