By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 18, 2013 at 10:40AM
Editor's note: This essay was originally published last weekend through Indiewire's partnership with USA Today.
Some movies -- particularly the braying blockbusters of summer --
give us the opportunity to escape from reality. But in several released
this month, characters are just trying to escape with their lives.
No less than four titles opening in October revolve around tense survival stories. This week alone finds two of them hitting theaters: In "12 Years a Slave," Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays kidnapped free man Solomon Northup, who was forced into hard labor at various plantations in the 1840s and endured grueling treatment at the hands of his owners; meanwhile, Robert Redford struggles against the forces of nature while hopelessly adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean in the nearly wordless "All Is Lost."
That's the second lost-at-sea drama released this month, nipping at the heels of "Captain Phillips," where Tom Hanks faces down ruthless Somali pirates. Then there's the technological marvel Gravity, an unnerving two-hander in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney drift helplessly through space for 90 minutes.
Why so many survival movies and why now?
It would be counterintuitive to craft an all-encompassing explanation for the serendipity of these movies' release dates, as they were actually produced at vastly different times. However, it does hint at a predilection for certain types of stories in the fall.
Anyone who sees movies throughout the year knows that fall is when things start to get really interesting at the multiplex. Studios tend to unleash their highest-quality products just as Oscar season starts to rev its glitzy engine. You won't find too many lightweight comedies or superhero spectacles opening at a theater near you.
And for the people who put movies in theaters, the idea of artful, sophisticated narratives usually goes hand in hand with brooding dramas, big ideas and show-stopping performances. The marketplace grows more competitive each year, so it's no surprise that each survival movie released this month comes from a different company: "12 Years a Slave" is a Fox Searchlight release, "Captain Phillips" hails from Sony, "All Is Lost" is being jointly distributed by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, while "Gravity" comes from Warner Bros.
But it's not just a commercial scheme. These movies provide ideal acting showcases. In "12 Years a Slave," much of Northup's horror over being suddenly thrust into a dangerous, hate-filled environment in which he must keep his literacy a secret comes through in Ejiofor's frantic expressions. Redford takes that challenge one step further: His nameless character in "All Is Lost" has no specific backstory, which means that the actor must summon the full weight of his decades-spanning experience to convey the chaos and fear he experiences as the wind and waves continually rip apart his measly boat.
In "Captain Phillips," Hanks' portrayal of the title character requires that he put a bold face forward while hinting at the dread he experiences while staring down his gun-toting assailants. Even the effects-heavy "Gravity" derives much of its power from extreme close-ups of Bullock as she battles against a supremely inhospitable environment; at times, the camera ventures into helmet and assumes her claustrophobic perspective. No matter how many twists these screenplays offer, the actors must embody the emotional intensity of the narrative in ways that venture beyond the limitations of the written word.
In a post-9/11, post-recession world rife with partisanship, global terrorism and the constant threat of more overseas incursions, American society has grown increasingly paranoid. These movies probe those fears with metaphors rooted in the human condition. The filmmakers go a long way toward making their protagonists' dire circumstances into profoundly relatable conundrums.
Viewed collectively, this month's survival stories depict an ominous world, but they're not entirely downers, either. In each case, our heroes don't simply hide in the shadows. These are stories of courageous showdowns and perseverance that leave audiences hoping for a happy outcome. Despite appearances, this crop of movies provide some of the more uplifting stories you'll find in theaters this year.