The bare necessity of survival is also everywhere in our world today. We see it in the refugees crowding on boats in the Mediterranean, in the growing homeless populations of America’s urban centers, in the many corners of the world where finding clean water and food is a daily struggle.
I would argue that the theme of survival has been one of the dominant themes in movies and television in the last few decades. Whether the reality TV escapades of Survivor or “Bear” Grylls, the post-apocalyptic survival narratives of The Walking Dead and ilk, or economic survival films like Two Days, One Night or 99 Homes, there is a clear channeling of survival anxiety in the orbits of contemporary pop culture.
Why is this? Perhaps the real possibility that a terrorist attack or mass shooting could happen anywhere, at anytime, has us compelled by protagonists who spring into action and do what is necessary to survive. Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 film United 93 is a good example of this: a real story of fight-to-the-death survival instincts that leaves the viewer wondering how capable they would be if faced with a similarly grave threat.
One sub-genre of the survival narrative that has been ubiquitous in recent years is the one-man-show cinematic display of resourceful, masculine survivalism. Films like Cast Away (Tom Hanks), All Is Lost (Robert Redford), Buried Alive (Ryan Reynolds), 127 Hours (James Franco), or this year’s The Martian (Matt Damon) all feature a solitary man in an against-all-odds survival situation, forced to go to extreme lengths (even sawing off one’s own arm) to avoid death.
The trend is likely a corollary to the “vintage masculinity” aesthetic of recent years, which has seen the rising popularity of beards, bacon, “lumbersexual” fashion and grandpa accoutrements (pipes, straight razors, shuffleboard). In the wake of feminism and the rise of egalitarian culture, men are naturally drawn to manifestations of re-asserted masculinity. That’s one reason these films are increasingly common, and The Revenant is one of its most vivid examples yet.
Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name (inspired by a true story), The Revenant is the epitome of primal, visceral cinema. Shot in long, magically uninterrupted takes with the disoriented perspective of a man in the wild who must constantly scan all horizons for threats, the film succeeds in putting the viewer right there in the icy wilderness. Emmanuel Lubezki’s characteristically gorgeous cinematography is as charged with natural beauty as it is with existential dread. We feel the warm steam from a hot rock in the midst of a blizzard. We shiver alongside DiCaprio as he swims in cold rivers and crawls on snowy forest floors. Our bodies shake at the thundering bass of a buffalo stampede; they tense up at the sound of an arrow flying right by our heads. It is the immediacy of cinematic sight and sound that gives us the visceral experience of identifying with the survival plight of Glass.