The New York Times – November 1, 2013
‘Gravity,’ ‘All Is Lost’ and Other Films Face Death
Not always, but every now and then, the movies tell us what’s on our minds almost before we know ourselves. After a summer of postapocalyptic films in which the earth became a labor camp or else was overrun by zombies, we now have, just in time for the holiday season, four exceptionally good movies that are concerned just with surviving. They’re not about victory but about merely enduring, getting through some bad days and then some even worse ones, with a little help at the very end, perhaps, but mostly on your own.
In the aptly named “Lone Survivor,” which was written and directed by Peter Berg and opens Dec. 27, Mark Wahlberg (so heavily bearded you hardly recognize him) is Marcus Luttrell, the only member of a four-man Navy SEAL team to survive a botched mission in Afghanistan in 2005. He gets shot up, bounces down mountains and barely clings to life before being rescued by some Pashtun villagers.
Navy SEALs also figure in “Captain Phillips,” Paul Greengrass’s movie about the hijacking of the container ship Alabama Maersk by Somali pirates in 2009. For much of the film, Tom Hanks, playing the title role, bobs around the Indian Ocean in a cramped lifeboat, kidnapped by three desperate Somalis, high on khat, who make him so fearful for his life that he scribbles a farewell note to his family.
In “All Is Lost,” written and directed by J. C. Chandor, Robert Redford writes a similar note while also on the Indian Ocean. “I’m sorry,” he says in a voice-over. “I tried to be strong, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.” Mr. Redford here is a solo sailor whose boat has been punctured by a shipping container, possibly even from a Maersk ship. (One steams by later, as if journeying from one survival flick to another.) Water pours in, a storm dismasts him, the boat turns turtle a couple of times and it’s only a matter of time before it slips beneath the waves and he finds himself in a life raft being poked by shark snouts.
Meanwhile, in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock tumbles through space, alone and adrift, after being severed from the Hubble Telescope. Space junk, shorn off a Russian satellite, whizzes by her and, thanks to 3-D, right out into the theater while she tries to radio Mission Control and hears only static in reply.
How did these four people find themselves in such similar plights, all more or less at the same time? “It happened like this,” Mr. Berg said recently. “Paul Greengrass, Alfonso Cuarón and I, and remind me who made ‘All Is Lost’? Right, J. C. Chandor. We all got together in a secret ceremony on a road outside of Vegas at 4 a.m., and we made a vow that we would all do survival films.”
Speaking on the phone from London, where he lives, Mr. Greengrass said: “Well, it’s really not so surprising. It’s sort of in the ether, isn’t it? I think everybody feels that the future is going to be difficult. There’s an interesting debate going on in this country right now over whether our children’s expectations are going to be less. After the dramatic fears of 9/11, I think we now have a more mordant anxiety about things like job insecurity and financial collapse. The culture sometimes reflects and refracts things, and I think all these stories are speaking to a sense of a future that is less assured.”
Secret conspiracy aside, “Lone Survivor” is also drawn from a real event (and from a memoir by Mr. Luttrell), but its roots go deeper into Mr. Berg’s own psyche. All his life he has been fascinated by violence, and his admiration for the Navy SEALs borders on hero worship. (Before filming “Lone Survivor,” he even embedded himself with them for a while.) He made the movie partly as a homage to the 19 SEAL members and Special Operations soldiers who ultimately died in the mission, he said recently, and partly to wake the rest of us up.
“I can’t help but feel that in our country and our culture there is a softness that has set in,” he said. “We’re not able to test ourselves physically anymore. That’s why we watch football even though we know it’s unsafe. And when we see survival films it’s a chance to relive a more challenging kind of existence.”
The two fictional films — “Gravity” and “All Is Lost” — add an almost allegorical element to the survival theme. Not to give too much away, there is a scene in “Gravity” in which a character emerges from the sea and crawls up on the sand as if beginning the cycle of evolution all over again. The Redford character in “All Is Lost” doesn’t have a back story or even a name (in the script he’s simply called “Our Man”) and it’s not hard to imagine him as an Everyman sailing, and then sinking, on that much-traveled vessel the Ship of Life.
Mr. Chandor said recently that he began just with Our Man’s regretful letter, and added the nautical idea only later while commuting on the train between Providence, R.I., and New York (where he was working on his first feature, 2011’s “Margin Call”) and noticing all the yachts being mothballed for the winter. “The sailing is meant to be standing in for a lot of things,” he said. “For climbing a mountain, racing a car — all the hobbies that people do to bring excitement to their lives.”
The idea of confining the story to a single character on a single boat, he added, came from something he picked up from “Margin Call,” where for budget reasons he wound up depicting the world financial collapse from the perspective of a few people on a single floor of one Wall Street office tower. “You learn about turning an inherent weakness into a strength,” he said.
Mr. Cuarón, speaking recently from his native Mexico, said that in the beginning he and his son Jonás, with whom he wrote “Gravity,” had no notion of making a space epic. They were looking for a spare, unadorned narrative that would focus on only one or two characters, and had in mind something like “A Man Escaped,” Robert Bresson’s great film about a French Resistance leader’s jailbreak from a Nazi prison. Setting the movie in space proved to be much more technically complicated than he ever imagined, Mr. Cuarón went on, but what appealed to him was the simplicity of the idea. “A human isolated in a cocoon far above the Earth — to me there is something profound in that,” he said.
All four movies expend a great deal of effort on being realistic and getting things right. This is true even of “Gravity,” which some nit-pickers have criticized for slight scientific inaccuracies. You can’t really travel from the Hubble to the International Space Station in the way the film suggests, and when Ms. Bullock sheds her spacesuit, she should be wearing, strictly speaking, not cute little boy-shorts but an adult diaper. But the movie feels authentic, as does “All Is Lost,” though Mr. Chandor admits that part of his movie was shot not on the open ocean but in a giant tank that James Cameron built in Mexico for “Titanic.”
On the other hand, almost all of “Captain Phillips” was shot at sea, using some of the same ships that participated in the original rescue. Most of “Lone Survivor” was filmed at 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevadas. All the cast members underwent SEAL training, during which they fired live rounds. For both Mr. Greengrass and Mr. Berg, not cutting corners became almost a moral issue. Mr. Greengrass said he was aware that after the real Captain Phillips published a memoir, some of his crew questioned his version of events; for that reason he wanted the movie to be as truthful as possible. Mr. Berg said he was always aware there were SEALs on the set, as visitors or advisers; for their sake and the sake of the families of those SEAL team members who had died he wanted to get things right. “They knew,” he said. “They were the ultimate jury.”
Because of this concern for honesty, each of the films became itself a survival story, a feat of endurance, for the crew and especially for the stars. Mr. Redford, who is 77, spent two and a half months being cold and wet. Many of the crew on “Captain Phillips” became seasick, Mr. Greengrass said, while others were just miserable. Mr. Wahlberg said in a telephone interview that he had never been in a film so taxing. “You could never say, ‘Hey, guys, I need a break,’ ” he said, “because you knew that the SEALs never got to do that. They never got to come off the mountain.”
For “Gravity” — which took four and a half years to make, if you count how long it took Mr. Cuarón to solve the technical problem of simulating gravitylessness, and was in certain ways the most arduous of all these films — Ms. Bullock spent long periods of time isolated in a boxlike chamber not unlike a space capsule, communicating with the crew only by radio. “The film was filled with adversity, just like the journey of the character,” Mr. Cuarón said. “Things would work, and then they wouldn’t, and we didn’t know why.”
Not accidentally, these four movies also become survival journeys — intense but pleasurable ones — for the audience. You sit in the theater, flinching at Taliban rifle fire, cringing every time Mr. Wahlberg bounces off a rock, or else looking down at your feet every once in a while to make sure that a bulkhead hasn’t broken and water hasn’t started seeping up the aisle. Your mouth goes dry. Your heart starts to beat a little faster.
“Home entertainment is attempting to chip away at the cinema,” Mr. Greengrass said of the appeal of survival movies. “But what we all want in the cinema is a really immersive experience, and I think survival stories are particularly good at that.”
Mr. Chandor said, “You look at all four of these films, and there’s something interesting running through them. They’re all about moments, whether it’s an hour and a half or two days or a week — really intense, heightened moments in people’s lives. They don’t need to be a television show. They live as movies.”
by Charles McGrath