Sunday, 5 September 2010

Is Anyone There?

There's a minor trend in movies coming out which are all thematically tied by the concept of being alone in precarious situations. Lionsgate will distribute Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés' film BURIED with Ryan Reynolds who stars as a US contractor buried alive by Iraqi insurgents with only a mobile phone and lighter to hand, battling in a race against time to escape from his claustrophobic death trap. Danny Boyle's 127 HOURS is a dramatisation of Aron Ralston infamous ordeal where he used a pocketknife to amputate his own arm and free himself from a boulder that fell and trapped him for five days in a remote desert canyon in eastern Utah. The trend is furthered by Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY - about a woman astronaut who has a calamitous accident that separates her from the Hubble on a declining orbit in the vastness of outer space. (GRAVITY will be shot in 3D for Warner Bros. sometime in May 2011 and will co-star Robert Downey Jr. but the studio is struggling to cast the lead female astronaut part after Angelina Jolie turned down the role for a second time, this despite the studio offering her a massive pay deal.) Likewise, Morgan Creek (with Universal Pictures handling US distribution) is in pre-production on Gabriele Muccino's $90 million sci-fi movie called PASSENGERS that will star Keanu Reeves as a spaceship traveller on a journey to another planet who is prematurely thawed from cryogenic slumber a century before anyone else and wrestles with the moral idea of unthawing a fellow female passenger to keep him company.

These types of movies have been made before. In the past few years we've had Cast Away, Open Water, Moon and I Am Legend to name a few, all of which were concerned with isolation. I can't speak for Rodrigo Cortés, but the most glaringly obvious thing about 127 HOURS, GRAVITY and PASSENGERS is that they are all directed by esteemed filmmakers known for their masterful dramatic work. None of these filmmakers are American, in the case of Danny Boyle, Rodrigo Cortés and Gabriele Muccino all being European. All of these movies deal with the emotional pain and suspense of isolation, while BURIED and GRAVITY further heighten the dramatic stakes by featuring protagonists who are constantly in contact with the outside world but hopelessly doomed by the situation they're trapped in. In short, all of the filmmakers helming these movies are serious dramatists, not workman like directors who make standardised mainstream material.

What seems constant is that these films seem to be concerned with very real characters caught up in fantastically bleak situations. With Hollywood studios steering clear of straightforward dramas about real people coming to terms with emotional predicaments, filmmakers like Cuaron and Muccino are now directing genre films that are more emotionally complex than the high-concept packages they come in. Britain has been doing this kind of thing for years through literary works about apocalyptic events that focus more on the emotional turmoil caused by such situations rather than simply revelling in the spectacle of cataclysm. Mary Shelley's The Last Man and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud are novels depicting ordinary men coming to terms with being the last men on Earth. Richard Jefferies' 1885 romance After London brilliantly depicted an England that has reverted to a neo-medieval civilisation after a disaster's disrupted the Earth's climate. John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher's The Death of Grass, Sydney Fowler Wright's Deluge and Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed are all British novels examining how ordinary communities deal with fantastically depressing events but never allow fantastical elements to overshadow the human tragedy. In this sense I think the new trend of suspense thriller/ dramas about isolation may be one of the most exciting minor movements coming out of contemporary Hollywood. These movies may, in certain cases, even be superb genre movies infused with a delicate cerebral quality not seen since Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, only hopefully not as boring. Should these movies find an audience then there'll be similar films greenlit. The worry is that the studios may eschew the subtle dramatics of these stories in favour of upping their disaster themed components which better lend themselves to expensive special-effects. Should these movies fail then an already risk-averse studio system will continue to generate formulaic fare. So even if Hollywood options the movie rights for the Chilean miners trapped deep below ground they'll probably not hire an edgy filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky to direct it; rather more opting for someone like Rob Marshall to shoehorn it into palatable 3D musical.

For the time being, being alone has never seemed more appealing.

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