(Amy Ning / For the Los Angeles…)
It could be a dark and stormy Oscar night. Among the historical epics, political thrillers and romantic dramas on the awards scene, several films that feature nature's fury are clouding the horizon. "Life of Pi," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Impossible" are wildly different films, but all share the mighty power of the environment and their protagonists' helplessness against it.
Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" features a boy shipwrecked by a massive storm who winds up sharing a lifeboat with a deadly tiger. "Beasts," from newcomer Benh Zeitlin, follows a young girl as she navigates the turbulent waters of her drowning community. In "The Impossible," opening Dec. 21, director Juan Antonio Bayona depicts the true story of a family fighting to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Even the sweet fairy tale-like "Moonrise Kingdom" from Wes Anderson gets into the act, with an approaching hurricane adding urgency to the tale of two young runaways.
Man versus nature is an ancient conflict, but in these films, man — and more often, child — is really getting walloped. And though these films are not solely concerned with terror and survival (with the exception of "The Impossible"), they're churning up intense responses in viewers and critics. "Pi," based on a bestselling novel by Yann Martel, far exceeded its box office expectations out of the gate and continues to do so. "Beasts" and "Moonrise" have won critical plaudits, and "The Impossible," starring award-winning actors Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, is garnering strong advance reviews. Clearly, the films are well-drawn stories involving spiritual quests and coming of age, but could the punishing tempests they contain also be reflecting some deeper cultural anxieties?
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"Without a doubt," says film historian David Thomson. "I think that a lot of people believe the world is ending. Now, I hope they're wrong, although I'm not sure." Thomson is the author, most recently, of "The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies." A child of 4 when the atom bomb was first exploded, he came of age when nuclear annihilation seemed the greatest threat. No more. "For the moment, we believe that nature, in the broadest sense, is the great danger. I'm not surprised that it's there in the films."
Vivian Sobchack, professor emerita at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, agrees that the natural world is part of the fear equation but also throws the global economy and its attendant sense of doom into the mix.
"It's the sense of being buffeted about by huge forces that seem beyond one's control, however it manifests itself," she notes. Filmmakers aren't oblivious to such influences, she adds; after all, "they, like audiences, are people in a culture," subject to the same concerns. She includes last year's "Take Shelter," with its story of an apocalyptic storm that may or may not be approaching, on the list.
Thomson expects to see more films of this genre shortly. Both film historians note that disaster films in previous generations came in waves, revealing the worries of their times. Thomson offers the sci-fi films of the early '50s, such as "Them" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "glorified B pictures in most cases, but they were pretty effective, driven and inspired by the idea that atomic fallout could produce cell damage." Sobchack mentions the early '70s blockbusters, such as "Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure," in which corruption was often the culprit. "Well, that was right around Watergate," she points out.
This new crop, however, is of a higher caliber, their themes more nuanced. "Certainly, what these prestige films are doing, and possibly why they deserve the prestige, is that they're not just in your face with it," says Sobchack. Unlike Roland Emmerich's "The Day After," these films are not overtly discussing climate change; "they're recognizing the kind of metaphorical substance of what's happening."
Even with such quality and subtlety, what is the appeal of watching such horrors unfold? Thomson views it as a kind of dare, to see how much one can endure. For Sobchack, watching is a form of controlling the uncontrollable, within the safe confines of a theater. "There's also a certain vicarious quality that, whatever happens to the character, even when it ends badly, there is the sense of having survived," she notes.
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As dark as the films get, for the most part some sunlight eventually breaks through. Faith, family, love and community are seen as forces that can withstand even the deadliest storm. Because, really, what else is there to cling to? That kind of retreat into familiar and traditional realms is comforting in times of adversity, Sobchack says. More pragmatically, Thomson notes that the audience needs to go home on some kind of triumphant note, or they'll never go back to the theater.
But here even the happiest moments aren't quite comforting. "With 'Pi,' you get a teenager talking in retrospect" of his survival, and with "Beasts" "you have the indomitable spirit of this very young child, who can wish worlds into being," says Sobchack. "But again, there's something weird in both of those films about the kind of affirmation. It doesn't undo the catastrophe." Without giving away the outcome of "The Impossible," it's safe to say nobody's going to feel particularly reassured by its ending either.
In light of all the natural destruction and terror both on- and off-screen, a little levity is always welcome. "I hope we make it to the end of the year," Thomson says. "To miss the Oscars, now there's a horror."
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