★★★ / ★★★★
With less than three pages of dialogue, “Arctic” delivers entertainment on the gut level. Many of us have encountered this plot before: a plane crashes on the icy mountains and the protagonist struggles to survive. However, what separates this film from its less impressive contemporaries is a lack of ostentatious display. We are not shown the plane crash that sets the story in motion. No breaking out of unconsciousness and the confusion that results afterwards. There is not even one subtitle that informs the audience how long it has been since the crash. We are simply and quietly encouraged to make assumptions based on the numerous details around the site.
Mads Mikkelsen is perfect in role a like this. He has the gift of being able to take one emotion and change it completely within two to three seconds using only his eyes. Notice the close-up when he sees a helicopter and it appears that those inside have noticed his need for rescue—just as quickly, hope turns into despair. But he excels not only when he looks into the distance. Early scenes involve his character, Overgård, looking, studying, pondering over the objects in his hands, whether it be a fish flopping about, a pile of rocks, a map. We do not need dialogue because his entire being—although silent—communicates clearly and with purpose every step of the way.
It assumes that the audience is intelligent. A great example is when the camera shows a map. We know the location of Overgård’s camp site because it is circled with a black marker. However, everything else around it is in black and white; there are various depictions of height due to hills and mountain ranges. Marked, too, is a path from the crash site to another familiar location. There is a legend with shapes and names next to each one. It is likely that those with a limited understanding of how a seemingly simple map works are likely to be lost or confused.
The writing by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, the former directing the film, is patient. It does not wish for the audience’s minds to go on autopilot—so unlike adventure movies these days. The map is shown at least ten times—and yet not once does it comes across as repetitive. The more we look at it, the more understanding we have of it. With every note that Overgård makes on that map, we gain an understanding not only of his path or his plans, we begin to understand how the map works in general. On top of this, we gain an appreciation of how the protagonist thinks and the strength of his fighting spirit. Eventually, the map is opened and we do not only look at the places he is labeling. We become confident of our ability to read this map and so we search for alternate routes should the plan fail to go as as expected. (It is a survival film. Of course it won’t.)
“Arctic” is offers numerous small surprises should one is willing to look closely and carefully. I wished that the score were less prominent at times or had been removed altogether because silence tends to amplify the sense of isolation. Note the instances when Overgård suspects he may not be alone in a place he thought was safe. Silence underscores the sound made not by him. Still, the work offers a riveting experience, one that we want to cling onto until the very last shot.
Cast Away (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) was very dedicated to his job. As a FedEx engineer, time was very important to him. In fact, we met him while delivering a speech to his workers in Russia. Everything had to be carefully planned because he was on high demand. Even his pager was busy during Christmas, a short amount of time that was supposed to be reserved for his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), and her family. But when Chuck’s plane plunged into the ocean, he not only learned what it meant to survive sans technology in an undiscovered island, but how it was like to be enslaved by time, the uncontrollable element that he thought he had control over. “Cast Away,” directed by Robert Zemeckis, was a meditative film because the majority of its running time was dedicated to Chuck attempting to adapt to his new environment. His situation was scary, but there was something amusing with the way he sloppily tried to catch fish, broke coconuts by bashing them against a rock, and foolishly made his way toward a light source with nothing but a paddle and a yellow floatie. Admittedly, by watching him struggle, I had a laugh to myself because I knew I probably wouldn’t survive in an uninhabited island even for a week, let alone four years. What made the film’s core fascinating was Hanks’ layered performance. My favorite scene wasn’t Chuck having conversations with Wilson, his volleyball companion, or the moment he successfully made fire. It was when he learned how to obtain water using a leaf. During that shot, the camera was focused on the plant. But Hanks’ expression was priceless. There was utter joy drawn all over his face, not just in his smile, but down to the wrinkles on his forehead and the excitement contained in his body language. It was like watching a child figuring out how a specific tool worked for the first time. The decision to jump four years into the future was risky but necessary. It was necessary because the subsequent scenes provided a stark contrast between how he was like a few days upon his arrival on the island and how he became an effective hunter, someone who used his hands, not solely his commanding voice and busy pager, to survive. It was risky because Hanks had to look different. I loved that the filmmakers didn’t rely on just Hanks’ hair to convince us that there was a significant passing of time. In the beginning, Chuck looked a bit pudgy. His obvious weight loss after the “Four Years Later” message was surprising. Written by William Broyles Jr., “Cast Away” was not just a story of a man who was stuck in an island. It was moving because of the lessons he learned involving how to live a more meaningful life. Jobs, even careers, come and go. Being laid off or getting fired, we learn to get over such things. But the feeling of losing the people we love is an entirely different matter. The pain, though we learn of ways to hide them, is deeper and permanent.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew of treasure hunters found a safe under the wreckage of RMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that perished, along with about 1,500 people, on April 15, 1912 while on its way to America. They expected the safe contain a diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean, but what they found instead was a drawing of a topless woman wearing the jewel of interest. Rose (Gloria Stuart) saw the drawing on television and called Lovett to inquire about the artifacts. Rose, as it turned out, was one of the survivors of the doomed voyage. Written and directed by James Cameron, “Titanic” was a great achievement because it was able to transport its audience to a time that was and allowed us to experience what could have happened on that ship as the ocean slowly, then quickly, swallowed it whole. One of the most engaging scenes, perhaps only about minute long, was when one of Lovett’s crew explained the physics in terms of how, after hitting an iceberg, the iron giant began to sink and why it broke the way it did. By giving us a picture using images on a computer, we had an idea of what to expect. Yet when it actually started to happen, the suspense and thrill reached an apogee and wouldn’t let go. The manner in which the picture switched from silence, to musicians playing joyful music in order to distract the passengers from reaching total panic, to the angelic hymns of the score made the images of people falling and jumping off the ship, out of fear and desperation, haunting and exhausting. It’s difficult to forget, once the ship was completely submerged, the sounds of people crying, screaming, splashing, and begging the lifeboats, most having plenty of space, to come back turn into complete silence. Cut to sea of corpses floating on freezing water. The heart of the picture was the romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet). Jack won his tickets to Titanic on a last-minute poker game. Along with a friend (Danny Nucci), the two were ecstatic for the epic journey. Rose, on the other hand, was incredibly unhappy because she was to marry Cal (Billy Zane), a pompous, boring, and self-important son of a steel tycoon. While most people tend to blame the romance for being the picture’s Achilles’ heel, I thought DiCaprio and Winslet had a winsome chemistry, benefiting from classic stories of a young man and woman torn by a demarcation of class and disapproving authorities. The dinner scene when Jack was invited to sit with Rose’s rich and snobbish company was a turning point for the two lovers. Despite pointed comments by Rose’s fiancé and mother (Frances Fisher), Jack proved that was comfortable with who he was and what he could offer. Rose looked at him like he was the richest and most desirable man in the room, the way we perhaps tend to do when we’re convinced that a person is exactly right for us. The script needed less cornball lines but they weren’t egregious enough to distract from the collective experience. “Titanic” was very extravagant. From Rose’s stylish clothes to the intricate designs of the ships’ doors and spacious private rooms, one could argue that the lavishness was necessary, even required, in order to highlight the horrors of destruction and lives being taken.
Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.
The Grey (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ottway (Liam Neeson) was considering to commit suicide the night before he and a group of oil rig workers were scheduled to take a flight to visit home, but he decided against it after hearing a wolf howl from a distance. When their plane crashed in Alaska, miles from the nearest town or city, Ottway and seven survivors (Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, and Ben Bray) were systematically hunted and killed by ravenous wolves. As the men dwindled in number, Ottway’s insistence to live became clearer. Conversely, the possibility of Ottway finding refuge turned dimmer. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” was a cut above us being reduced to passively watching men trying to survive against the cruelty of nature. It forced us to consider difficult questions by immersing us in images that ranged from the grizzly wolf attacks to the chilly landscapes of barren hope. Even though it was difficult to remember the men’s names, the majority of them serving as fodder for the canines, more was revealed about them in the second half of the picture. So when a character, for instance, decided that others should leave him behind because his will to live reached the bottom of the barrel, we felt bad for the character yet we understood where he was coming from. There was no melodrama. The aforementioned scene was especially well-executed. There was no music that served to signal that we should feel a certain way. There was only silence and peace, an acquisition of mental freedom through the act of surrendering. I found beauty in its attitude about death, how it shouldn’t be feared as long as it’s our choice. Notice the contrast between a sweet surrender and a wolf suddenly jumping from behind while the men kept warm around a fire. The title went beyond the color of the wolves that growled from a distance. The adventure was ultimately convincing because the film was essentially about the grey area of life and death. By watching the men march for a seemingly interminable distance, the picture dared us to question how far we think we would be willing to go if we were forced to be in their place. The men were supposed to be “tough” because they were hardened by their time and experiences in prison. Despite their histories and intrepid comportments, we could relate to them because the screenplay gave them a chance to open up and reveal reasons why they wanted to survive. Like them, the majority of us value our families most: we fight for them, to be with them, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what separates us from other animals like the wolves in the film. They may be able to remember a person who harmed them in some way but they are incapable of loyalty or being connected to their conscience. “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, also benefited from Neeson’s versatile performance. He was able to keep an interesting balance between being animalistic and humanistic, a requisite for a movie driven by implications about our place in nature. But it wasn’t without a sense of humor. I wondered at some point if barbecued wolf meat was a delicacy somewhere out there.
The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Donna (Dee Wallace), along with her son (Danny Pintauro), drove the barely functional family car to be fixed, but the mechanic (Ed Lauter) and his family weren’t around. The only thing waiting for them was a rabid St. Bernard that attacked when a loud noise was present. Stuck in the car for a couple of days, Donna had to go to great measures to prevent her son from death due to a lack of food and water. Based on the novel by Stephen King, “Cujo” was particularly impressive because the story was rooted in drama. The Trenton household was on the verge of collapse because Donna informed her husband (Daniel Hugh Kelly) that she had been having an affair with one of their friends (Christopher Stone). On top of that, their comfortable way of life was threatened when the husband’s business was marred by bad publicity. The strain in their marriage, though much of it was undiscussed, affected the child in such a way that Tad was convinced there was a monster, equipped with a long snout and yellow eyes, in his closet. The horror aspect was quite clever. Aside from the first scene which involved the child preparing himself to turn off the light, race across the room, and land on his bed, which I often did as a child because I loved to watch scary movies, the horror elements were temporarily pushed to the side. From the moment Cujo attacked the mother and son, we realized that the dog symbolized the invisible monster in the room whenever the husband and wife shared the same space. They could barely look at each other, let alone carry a meaningful conversation. After the dog’s initial attack, I was floored when the child screamed and hysterically asked his mother how the monster got out of his closet. The connection between the child’s fantasy and the reality of a potentially broken marriage took the form of a beast so ferocious, we ultimately didn’t care about Donna’s transgressions. At least I didn’t. It became a matter of survival of an unhappy woman and her innocent son. The scenes inside the car were very involving. Under the sweltering sun, I felt like I was in there with them as they sweat and suffered the shortage of basic necessities. When Tad eventually had trouble breathing, Wallace’s performance was front and center. Her desperation, and eventual determination to save her son, swept me away. I wanted to help her. It made me consider what I would have done for my child if I was placed in a similar situation. “Cujo,” directed by Lewis Teague, was efficient, smart, and thrilling. I admired it most for its details and how the meanings we placed in them pulsated with rabid energy.