Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
BlackSea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)
And in 2016:
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)
It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.
This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.
Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?
Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.
Aside from their immediate availability, I tend to rent movies from the public library that I would never pay to see otherwise. On Wednesday, I picked up Thor: The Dark World and Divergent. I barely paid attention to what I now jokingly call Thor 2: Even Longer Hair; it was loud, stupid, and too complicated to follow while reading the New York Times. Despite its silly and childish sense of humor, the film took itself way too seriously. The same could be said of Divergent, which is the first in a series (big surprise!) of adaptations of the popular YA novels penned by Veronica Roth. However, Divergent pleasantly defied my low expectations. Once I got past the ridiculous premise, that in the undistinguished future, society is divided into five different factions in order to keep the peace, I got sucked into its dystopian world. Apparently a war some time in the past devastated the entire planet. We have no idea what in particular precipitated near total annihilation the world over; all we see is a dilapidated Chicago surrounded by an electrified fence stories high.
Given its generic provenance and overlapping themes about violence and children, Divergent is most often compared to that other YA juggernaut The Hunger Games. Years ago, I didn’t take too kindly to the first in that film series, writing that its unsubtle satire of our obsessive fascination with celebrity, competition, and violence could only really please the film’s built-in fanbase: enthusiastic readers of the novels. But catching Divergent–for free–was already on my subconscious agenda because I had just read an article by NYT film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis about the changing representations of young women and girls in cinema, a survey view of contemporary trends that compliments Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent pieceabout “badass” female characters in film today. Hornaday doesn’t mention Divergent, but Scott writes that protagonist Tris Prior is like Katniss Everdeen, her sister in arms, “a fighter against corrupt authority.” Since I am most interested in representations of women and femininity in all kinds of films, I knew that it would probably be worth my while to check out Divergent.
I have no idea what it is like as a novel; I have no desire to read the books, but I must admit that Divergent, as directed by Neil Burger and adapted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones), makes for quite a thrilling movie, a modern action flick with a feminist bent. It combines the trappings of a poignant coming-of-age story with those of a sophisticated political thriller. At least more sophisticated than it had any right to be.
Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice Prior, a teen born into the selfless faction of society. The film begins on the eve of her aptitude test, which should either decide if she is indeed Abnegation material or if she would better fit in with the scholars of Erudite, the honest folks of Candor, the hippies of Amity, or the daredevils of Dauntless. It drives me crazy that Roth didn’t use parallelism when naming her fictitious factions, opting for nouns (Abnegation, Candor, Amity) and adjectives (Erudite, Dauntless). Rather conveniently, on the day that both she and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) choose their future careers, if you will, Beatrice has the option of choosing any faction to belong to. The scene, played out in a symposium-like setting with leadership from all factions present and parents sitting in the audience with the kids they may or may not lose to a whole new family, certainly dramatizes the closest real-life equivalent: choosing your college (major). Much to their parents’ surprise, Caleb elects to be Erudite, Beatrice Dauntless. But you knew that was coming from the way she watched the Dauntless teens arrive at the Choosing Ceremony, a look on her face that said, “I wish I could jump out of a speeding train and run all the way to the door!”
This is where Beatrice’s journey really begins. Choosing a faction other than the one she was born into means that she can never go home, and if she shouldn’t make the cut at Dauntless, the leaders will throw her out onto the street, where she will remain homeless, factionless, pitiful, and despised. On her first day of college, if you will, Beatrice changes her name to Tris (it sounds more futuristic, sportier), makes friends with Christina of Candor (Zoe Kravitz), and surprises everyone, especially herself, when she volunteers to jump off a building before the other “initiates.” “Initiates” is just another word for “pledges,” for the first hour or so mainly concerns the brutal training (hazing?) that the new recruits must undergo in order to join the co-ed fraternity. It goes without saying that Tris rises from the lowest performing to the top of the class, helped in so small part by her boot camp instructor named Four, a taciturn but sensitive Mr. Pamuk (Theo James). Thankfully, the filmmakers milk the sexual tension between them for most of the film; we’re never certain until the third act that Tris, and by extension, we, can trust him with her secret: the results of her aptitude test were inconclusive. In other words, Tris shows qualities from the Erudite, selfless, and Dauntless. Yes, don’t we all feel better knowing that the young woman we’re rooting for isn’t defined by just one trait? Isn’t that the whole reason the author invented this world?
Regardless, Divergent works as a film because its visuals are quite striking, beginning with the aptitude test. Injected with a serum that will induce hallucinations (only the first of its kind, you soon find out), Beatrice imagines herself in a hall of mirrors, the confrontation with her fractured identity very much actualized in her mind–and for the film audience. She stares down a fierce dog (Dauntless) until she tricks her mind into thinking it is only a docile puppy (Erudite) and tries to protect a little girl from the angry canine (Abnegation). The hallucinations seamlessly meld together in the edit, thereby heightening their lucid dream-like quality but at the same time lending her fears real power. The same goes for the second part of Tris’s initiation, after hand-to-hand combat and weapons training: the psychological torture/endurance test in which Four injects her with a serum that makes her hallucinate all of her fears and how she might use methods inherent to Dauntless members to overcome said phobias. In these fevered dreams, her world turns upside down, inside out. The escape from one nightmare just leads to the next before she wakes herself up. Four, conveniently equipped with technology that allows him to see what she was visualizing in her brain, quickly determines that, for instance, her method for escaping from the glass cube filling up with water (just tapping on the glass) isn’t something that would ever occur to a Dauntless MacGyver. It’s also what makes her better than someone who is merely Dauntless.
Furthermore, the production design is impressive and visually stunning. Tris’s descent into the Dauntless world is played out on an Expressionist stage. The exaggerated scale of buildings is like something out of a criminal underworld picture, or perhaps one about a motorcycle rebel gang. Or The Lost Boys (black leather and other stretchy, breathable fabrics dominate the Dauntless wardrobe). There is also a fair amount of shadowplay. The Dauntless’s environs contrast with those of the Erudite, whose architecture looks like its been designed by Buckminster Fuller, thereby undermining their claims to being factual or at least transparent in their research. Although the people in Abnegation live in concrete houses, their simple yet modern design recalls contemporary pre-fab homes or affordable housing blocks of the 1960s. In other words, modest and indistinguishable. Isn’t it remarkable, though, that Millennium Park doesn’t make an appearance in Divergent (but a Navy Pier-in-ruin does)?
Divergent probably wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for Woodley’s strong, sympathetic performance. She is convincing as a rebellious teen who, once she leaves her family and faction, has nothing but her own strength and wits to rely on. Although her parents support Caleb and Beatrice in their potentially life-changing decisions, vowing to love them regardless of which faction they choose, Beatrice’s desire to break free from the world of Abnegation is a quiet rebellion against her parents. As the film’s political conspiracy gradually comes to light, Tris is the only one brave and capable enough to defy the New World Order that Kate Winslet’s character, Jeanine, represents. As the leader of the Erudite, Jeanine undermines the Abnegation-led government (of which Beatrice’s parents are a part), stirring up rumors that the selfless leaders are hypocrites who beat their children. Jeanine interprets this hypocrisy as a flaw in Human Nature, which also explains her genocidal plan to turn the Dauntless into a mindless army (again, with the help of some serum injected into the neck!) that will obey her orders to kill everyone in Abnegation. She isn’t a fan of Divergents, either, since they cannot be easily controlled. In this way, Tris’s rebellious spirit is presented as an aberration of Human Nature (believe me, the way Jeanine talks about it, it deserves capitalization). Her coming-of-age story doesn’t just converge with the unraveling of widespread corruption in faction leadership; exposing Jeanine and putting a stop to her coup d’etat almost becomes her coming of age’s reason for being.
Almost. Remember, she’s still in “college,” and Divergent checks off a number of campus-living cliches: the “initiates'”original delight when learning dorms are co-ed and their subsequent squeamishness when they find out they’ll have absolutely no privacy, her aforementioned crush on an upperclassman/mentor who shows her the ropes (Four), and her impulsive decision to get a tattoo. At least the imprint of three black birds ascending from her collarbone isn’t a tramp stamp, but isn’t it a little too close to the revolutionary symbol central to The Hunger Games?
Divergent is, in my opinion, extremely violent, what with the brutal but narrative-driven fight scenes, attempted rape and/or murder of Tris by jealous male “pledges,” and the fact that her mother and father are killed within minutes of the other while trying to protect their children. It is also conspicuously bloodless thanks to its PG-13 rating. Most importantly, its scariest moments are presented as thrilling out-of-body experiences for Tris. In addition to the serum-induced hallucinations, she literally jumps into her journey towards self-discovery; if her leaping off a speeding L train onto the roof of a building doesn’t convince, her jump from the roof into the derelict building below sure does. However, I was completely bowled over and scared out of my rational mind when she zip-lined from a skyscraper on one side of Chicago to the Dauntless HQ down below, clear on the other side of town. This scene presents a very romantic conceptualization of her burgeoning identity not only as a Dauntless individual but also as an autonomous subject in general. Even if Tris is one “kick ass” heroine that film critics wish there were more of on screen these days, I can’t relate to her desire for what amounts to a militaristic life. But I do long for physical and emotional transcendence, like the one she experiences in the air. For her soaring through the sky shows her–and us, by extension–what she is capable of achieving and how that makes her feel. It’s my favorite scene in the film; it’s a bold statement about girlhood. And, dare I say, a superheroic one?
By way of conclusion, let’s discuss Tris’s sexual awakening. You knew it was coming. She’s in “college,” after all. Her first sexual experience arguably takes place when, in an effort to protect and train Tris, Four invites her into his own fearscape (it’s no match for her). The injection of the hallucination-causing serum acts as an exchange of fluids, and I immediately thought of the virtual sex scene in Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993) when Four and Tris plugged themselves into the computer, interacting (I mean, touching) through scenes visualized in their minds. Interestingly, and undoubtedly owing to the predominantly female audience, it is Four’s body that is put on display, revealed as a landscape that Tris discovers with her eyes and fingertips. She asks to see the expansive tattoo all over his back. The moment he takes off his shirt is meant to make audiences swoon, but it also uncovers that Four is Divergent, too. For his tattoo design incorporates the symbols for all five factions.
Although taken seriously as a suppression of her sexual desires, Tris’s decision to forgo her first real sexual encounter occurs so quickly that I originally misinterpreted it as one in which she does indeed have sex with Four off-screen. Her choice not to have sex (yet) is presented as no big deal, because she has no anxiety over Four’s feelings towards her. Curiously, though, at her final exam in which she must maneuver her own fearscape like a true Dauntless member, she envisions a betrayal of trust on Four’s part. That is, she quashes his attempt to rape her by kicking him in the groin. I was stunned to see date rape represented in this PG-13 action flick, but I love its context of female empowerment. The worst part of Divergent, vis-a-vis Tris’s self-actualization, is when, in the final scene as she and her friends escape the city on the L train, she says that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Understandable, given that she has no faction and no family, but it’s a shame that it’s her (male) love interest who reassures her that she is someone because he knows who she is. Two steps forward, three steps back for strong young women in film.