Rob Edelman: Survivor Films; Power Corrupts

Jan 27, 2014

What do films like ALL IS LOST, GRAVITY, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, and WORLD WAR Z, among so many others, have in common? Sure, all were released theatrically in 2013; however, even though their characters and the specifics of their storylines differ, all are linked in one major way.

Each is what you might call a “survivor” film. Each spotlights characters who are faced with a dire situation-- if you will, a life-or-death, end-of-the-world situation-- and he or she must dig down deep and gather all of his or her resources in order to, well, survive.

The most obvious example is WORLD WAR Z. Here, nature is the villain, as a virus is transforming earthlings into zombies. So former United Nations investigator Brad Pitt must say goodbye to his loved ones, return to action, and figure out what is happening before the entire world is destroyed. ALL IS LOST, meanwhile, clearly is a meditation on mortality. It is the tale of a lone man, played by Robert Redford in one of his best-ever performances, who is lost at sea. His boat is taking on water as a result of an accident. He is nowhere near land, and he must find a way to keep the craft afloat and stay alive. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is the fact-based tale of an otherwise average American merchant seaman, played by Tom Hanks, who finds himself and his crew in mortal danger when his ship is hijacked by Somali pirates. GRAVITY spotlights a pair of astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, whose spaceship is destroyed and who are left floating helplessly in space.

These films are not mere good-guys-versus-bad-guys dramas or thrillers. Their characters are decent men and women who find themselves adrift and, more often than not, alone in a deadly dangerous world, and they must do whatever they have to in order to stay alive.

For decades, countless films have featured villains who were megalomaniacs, and who were intent on world domination, and it was up to the stalwart hero to quite literally save humankind. But it seems that, today, these scenarios are increasingly prevalent in our movies. My sense is that, in a world in which economies are failing, catastrophic weather events are occurring weekly, and one-too-many terrorist acts are not being thwarted, films like ALL IS LOST, GRAVITY, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, and WORLD WAR Z, among so many others, are taking on a special and ominous meaning.

Here is another point. In so many current films, too many to begin citing, the villains are not clear-cut bad guys: master criminals or lawbreakers who are the nemeses of good-guy authority figures. Instead, the villains are the authority figures who are supposed to be the good guys.

Let me offer one example. LAWLESS, which was released in 2012, is the fact-based tale of some Depression-era bootleggers in rural Virginia. Sure, these men are lawbreakers, but they are the good guys in the story as they are presented as little more than small businessmen who are offering the public a desired commodity. Who is the bad guy? Well, he is a sadistic lawman, an elitist Special Deputy who heartlessly goes after the bootleggers, whom he condescendingly views as back-country hicks.

We live in a time in which the greed of one-to-many CEOs causes economic chaos. One-too-many politicians are more concerned with spin and power games than with aiding their constituents. One-too-many individuals who have power abuse power.     

It seems that we all know this. Yet nothing is done. Nothing changes. And this sense of helplessness, this view of those in power as being vile and corrupt, is at the core of films like LAWLESS-- and so many others.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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