Equal Temper of Heroic Hearts

Why We Are Under the Spell of Survival Movies

’Tis the season for survival movies, and the trend is not new. But Andrew Romano looks at what makes this year’s crop unique—and the timeliest of them, All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford. Warning: spoiler alert.

Roadside Attractions

The four most acclaimed films to arrive in theaters since the end of summer are all about the same thing, more or less: a solitary man or woman who must suffer (and attempt to survive) the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, whether natural, manmade, or both. A particularly dedicated (or masochistic) moviegoer could now park outside his local multiplex in the morning, spend his brunch hours rediscovering the horrors of America’s peculiar institution (12 Years a Slave), pass the early afternoon adrift in outer space (Gravity), hunker down with a band of hostage-taking Somali pirates around tea time (Captain Phillips), and have dinner, for one, on a life raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean (All Is Lost).

It’s not unusual for survival movies to materialize this time of year. 127 Hours (the one in which James Franco saws off his right arm) came out on Nov. 12, 2010; Cast Away (the one in which Tom Hanks talks to a volleyball) was released on Dec. 22, 2000. Studios have Oscar campaigns to consider, and it is easier to lobby on behalf of an uplifting story that stars a leading man or lady fighting heroically for his or her life than pretty much anything else.

It is, however, unusual for four survival movies—all of them very high-profile, and all of them very good—to materialize at once. To suggest that This Happened for a Reason is probably a stretch. The Elders of Hollywood don’t assemble in the cellar of the Chateau Marmont and decide that survival will be the hot theme next autumn; each of these films followed its own long and winding road to the screen. And yet, after seeing 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips, and All is Lost in quick succession, I was struck by how similar their survival narratives were—and how strongly these similarities seemed to resonate with what’s happening in the real world right now. The best movies can tap into the Zeitgeist whether they’re trying to or not.

The obvious thing for a critic to say at this point would be something like “the survival movies of 2013 reflect an America that is still recovering from the worst downturn since the Great Depression—and they resonate because we’ve all been struggling to survive these past few years.” It is, in other words, especially comforting at a time of immense economic tribulation and uncertainty to see Tom Hanks enduring a hostage situation or Sandra Bullock battling to return to Earth because it reminds us that the human spirit is strong and that we too can triumph over adversity.

But I think that’s a little too one-dimensional. What makes the 2013 quartet notably of-the-moment is the way each of their survival stories begins: not with a freak accident (as in 127 Hours) or an act of nature (as in Cast Away) but with some sort of political or economic trigger. In Gravity, the Russians fire a missile at one of their old spy satellites and metallic debris goes hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour, eventually obliterating Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski’s (George Clooney) ride home. In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York circa 1841, is drugged, shackled, and sold into slavery after signing up for a lucrative gig with a touring circus company. In Captain Phillips, impoverished Somali pirates hijack the MV Maersk Alabama, a massive shipping vessel, and hold the title character (Tom Hanks) for ransom at gunpoint. In All Is Lost, a shipping container full of made-in-China sneakers punctures the hull of Robert Redford’s (the character has no name) sailboat.

In the past, movie survivalists typically had to contend with some sort of unseen force: Mother Nature, cruel fate, whatever. But this year the culprits are politics and commerce—domestic, global, even interstellar. Shit isn’t just happening to Stone, Northup, Phillips, and Redford; it’s being made to happen by some larger, malevolent system. However subtly, their on-screen adversities mirror our real-world anxieties—about globalization, economic inequality, international affairs, technology, and so on—and pack a more precise punch as a result.

In a certain sense, such precision should make these films more inspirational than their survival-movie predecessors: the more a character’s struggles echo our own, the more uplifting his or her endurance becomes. And yet I couldn’t help but notice a bleaker message in the current crop of survival movies as well. Only in Captain Phillips is anyone saved by the system; only there does some greater institution—the U.S. Navy, whose snipers ultimately gun down the pirates—come to anyone’s rescue. In 12 Years a Slave, Northup is liberated by luck (he happens to encounter a sympathetic Canadian carpenter); in Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone must pilot her capsule back to Earth alone, without the help of Houston or the more experienced Kowalski.

Meanwhile, in All is Lost—the purest, timeliest, and finest of these films—Redford’s yachtsman, identified in the credits only as Our Man, sets his course for the nearest commercial shipping lanes; perhaps the big boats that put him in this pickle will spot him and scoop him up. When he finally arrives, however, his flares go unseen, his shouting unheard. The goliath vessels, loaded with more Chinese sneakers and bound for distant American shores, slip silently by, shrinking toward the horizon. Commerce can’t save Our Man. The government can’t save him. Society can’t save him, either. Only he can save himself.

In the end, All Is Lost refuses even to clarify whether Redford’s own taciturn resilience and all-American competence is enough. At a moment when many of us are wondering the same thing about ourselves—about our own lives, and livelihoods, and ability to go it alone—this haunting final scene strikes me as one of the few perfect movie endings in recent memory.

Are we all in the same boat now? it seems to ask—and leaves us, rightly, with only a question mark to cling to.