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Stranded cinema: 'Captain Phillips,' 'Gravity' rediscover a genre

October 11, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Tom Hanks stars in "Captain Phillips," the latest entry in the stranded cinema genre. (Sony Pictures)
Tom Hanks stars in "Captain Phillips," the latest entry in the… (Sony Pictures )

When Tom Hanks released "Cast Away" in 2000, he was all alone in more ways than one.

Playing a man stuck for years on a remote island, the Oscar winner was helping to bring back a genre, the so-called stranded film, that hadn't had a major entry in five years (since Hanks' own "Apollo 13").

Beginning Friday, the actor can be seen in another nautically-themed marooned movie, the Somali-hijacking tale "Captain Phillips.” Only this time Hanks' story of isolation has plenty of company.

The stranded film, which Hollywood has returned to intermittently since the form came into its own in the mid-20th century, is back with a vengeance. “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is one of nearly a dozen movies this fall -- including Alfonso Cuaron's current hit "Gravity" and an assortment of upcoming releases -- about a person marooned far from where (or who) they want to be.

PHOTOS: Tom Hanks | Career in pictures

Unlike many past iterations, characters in this go-round are fighting not only for their physical survival -- though that’s often the case -- but against emotional, racial and even spiritual forces. The result is a complex spin on a familiar genre, and one that may offer a telling cultural snapshot.

Among the upcoming releases with a clear-cut stranded concept are Steve McQueen's antebellum drama "12 Years a Slave," Spike Lee's action remake "Oldboy," about a man held captive in a motel room for 20 years, and J.C. Chandor’s man-at-sea tale “All Is Lost.”  (These films, it should be said, follow similarly themed movies, such as the shipwrecked drama “Life of Pi” last year and mountain-climber-rescue pic “127 Hours” in 2010.)

More figuratively, the definition of stranded cinema could be expanded to includes tales of spiritual and emotional isolation, in which heroes function as castaways even when they’re surrounded by crowds of people. 

That list: Ben Stiller's loner dramedy "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Ridley Scott's morality-play thriller "The Counselor," Jason Reitman’s literary drama “Labor Day” (about a woman cut off from the outside world by an escaped convict and her own haunting memories) and Spike Jonze’s piece of techno-whimsy, "Her." 

PHOTOS: Captain Phillips on screen and in real life

Jonze's film, about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with a digital voice, world-premieres at the New York Film Festival on Saturday before opening, like “Mitty,” on Christmas Day, when the movies will provide a bookend to what might be termed the season of the stranded.

"We are seeing a lot of these," said McQueen thoughtfully when asked of the glut.  "I think with a lot of the news coming at us in newspapers these days, there's a feeling sometimes that we're helpless," he said. "[Stranded] stories like this help us feel like we're not alone.”

McQueen's fact-based movie, due in theaters next Friday, is a novel twist on the marooned movie. Its main character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is kidnapped in 1841 from his upstate New York home and sold into slavery across a series of Southern plantations, where he spends more than a decade trying to survive so he can make his way back to his family. It’s "Cast Away" with a historical and racial charge.

Stiller's "Mitty," in which he also stars, portrays a timid man isolated by his own fears, trapped in a low-end job at Life magazine (where pictures of men far more accomplished adorn the walls) and cut off from a romantic crush who works down the hall but may as well be a million miles away. Mitty spends his days creating elaborate fantasies much in the way Hanks’ Fed Ex worker Chuck Noland invented an imaginary life for a volleyball in “Cast Away.”

NYFF 2013: Photos from the scene

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