At the movies, isolated heroes tell us we’re on our own

A man lost at sea. A woman marooned in space. A ship’s captain torn from his crew, and a family man torn from his freedom, humanity, even identity.

Our movies are telling us we’re on our own now. The cavalry isn’t coming and Houston has other problems to deal with. If some cultural seasons celebrate teamwork — good people coming together, easily or not, to work toward a common goal — we seem to be in a moment obsessed with the isolated hero.

This is not just about Sandra Bullock drifting into the void as the free-floating astronaut of “Gravity’’ or Robert Redford as the nameless yachtsman slowly sinking into the Indian Ocean in “All Is Lost.’’ It’s Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave,’’ an educated, articulate man who finds those qualities mark him as a dangerous aberration in the 1840s American South. Or Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), hijacked out of his ship by Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips.’’ The extremity of the peril is compounded by the sense that these four are facing it alone, sometimes in the most literal sense.


All these stories end in moments of triumphant closure, some qualified, one possibly illusory, but they’re not about overcoming stiff odds so much as the blind terror of working without backup — of being all alone out there on the curve. If the final scenes of last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty’’ were a tribute to groups of men (and a few women) thinking and acting as one, what seems to matter this year is how fast you can think for yourself.

So what’s going on here? The films’ respective directors aren’t comparing notes, and since most movies are green-lit a good two years ahead of their appearance in theaters, it’s foolish to correlate them directly to current events.

Still, something’s in the water. Is it too much of a stretch to look at the long-brewing stalemate in our halls of government and assume nobody there will lend a hand? We’ve sensed a coming storm for so long — economic, environmental, or otherwise. How, exactly, do we handle apocalypse now?

Certainly “Gravity’’ seems perversely engineered to paint its characters — first three, then two, then one — into a galactic corner. Why is this movie such a runaway hit?


Possibly because it deposits viewers in a situation for which there can be no return and then figures out a way, through ingenuity and rising fortitude. Or perhaps it’s simply that we thrill with sick terror at the idea of being so profoundly bereft — so small, so powerless, so far from home.

I know moviegoers so affected by “Gravity’’ that their internal gyroscopes have come undone while watching the film in 3D IMAX; they stagger out of the theater physically nauseated for hours, even days. I know still others who won’t go anywhere near the movie because the concept alone is too frightening to contemplate. It’s like “Jaws,’’ says one acquaintance, but the shark is the entire universe.

“All Is Lost’’ is a similar affair — one character in extremis and how will he get out of it? Will he get out of it? — but J. C. Chandor’s sneakily brilliant film is, even more than “Gravity,’’ about process and improvisation.

The yacht carrying the anonymous sailor (Redford) springs a leak, loses communication with the outside world — now what? There’s a storm and a snapped mast — now what? You have to break out the lifeboat: What do you bring with you? Where do you go? “All Is Lost’’ stays focused on the details and lets the big picture take care of itself.


It’s only when the lifeboat drifts into a shipping lane and is passed unseen by commercial craft 100 times its size that the film’s hero and we get the message. No one’s coming to bail us out. We are alone.

The anomaly among these films would seem to be “Captain Phillips,’’ the true story of the 2009 capture of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.

In this case, the cavalry ultimately did arrive, in the form of three US warships, a battalion of military helicopters, and a team of Navy SEAL sharpshooters. But before all the ordnance and derring-do, this is the story of one company man separated from his company and companions. With the crew hiding below decks and communications with headquarters cut off, Captain Phillips can no longer go by the book. He has to wing it. What lifts the movie above mere triumphalism is the way director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray treat the pirates. They themselves are men with no illusions about being alone in the universe.

When their leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), wearily shakes his head at the captain’s suggestion that he could find another line of work and says, “Maybe in America,’’ he’s not just acknowledging the luxuries and wealth of social movement we take for granted. He’s saying they’re chimeras, too.

The only reality in these movies is the situation as it exists, right here and right now, and only a fool (or an American) would expect backup.


There’s isolation in “12 Years a Slave’’ as well, but it’s a cultural isolation and a slow crushing of the human spirit. Northup, the free New York African-American kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery, moves among men who don’t see him as a man. To them, he’s chattel, as capable of comprehending logic as a cow.

Northup’s education and quick wits are not just unnecessary, they’re liabilities, because no white man will stand a slave who is smarter than he is. He loses everything up to and including his identity — Northup’s name gets changed to “Platt,’’ the system grinds him down until he accepts his lot, and he starts becoming the unthinking beast of burden his owners thought they were buying in the first place.

If the other three films considered here are about resourcefulness, about manning up (all due irony noted in the case of “Gravity’’) and taking responsibility when no one else can or will, this signal American tragedy has the nerve to follow isolation almost all the way to its bitter end — the extinction of what makes us human in the first place. It’s a telling moment in our culture that can sustain visions this honestly bleak.


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