Hearts of Darkness: Movies that Pit Humans Against Nature
Like the age old struggle of humans coming to terms with our own base impulses, stories that pit us against nature are classic and universal. They remind us how far we’ve come and yet how easily it can all be taken away. Civilization is almost a shared delusion; something agreed upon despite the rips in the seams we can all see. Once we’re removed entirely from this delusion we’re back to being prey, and this is the wellspring of animal anxiety into which survival movies continue to tap.
A secondary concern to being eaten, starving, or simply dying of exposure is loneliness. Most human versus nature films have more than one character just for the sake of movie-making. Where a couple of characters stranded together can form bonds, rescue each other, and provide moments of levity, having just one person on their own can be limiting in regards to exposition or character development. Arctic (2019) manages to make do, stripping away all extrinsic comforts for its poor unnamed protagonist. It’s as straightforward as a movie can get, and that’s part of its magic.
A man (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been stranded (and survived) in an icy wasteland, decides to start the dangerous, lengthy trek to an outpost he knows is nearby. Nearby, of course, is a relative term, and for the first third of the movie, we see why someone would prefer to stay put rather than take the chance of leaving. Mikkelsen’s character lives in a shelter made out of the small plane he was presumably a passenger in, and even has a whole system set up for catching fish. We see the preventative measures he’s put in place, like leaving food a distance away from his shelter to keep polar bears from sniffing around. He has a clear routine and goes through it like clockwork, if for no other reason than to keep boredom and the tangible, encroaching insanity at bay.
When a helicopter rescue mission crashes right near him, one of the passengers (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) survives but is badly injured. For the vast majority of her screen time, she’s barely conscious and only speaks a few sentences. Mikkelsen’s decision to start moving toward the outpost is due to her worsening condition, and the knowledge that if she dies, he will once again be utterly alone. The scene where he brings her into his shelter exposes the emotional heart of this movie: he pauses as he lowers her to the makeshift bed with his hands against her back, startled by the sudden reminder of how badly he has missed human contact.
The journey to the outpost would be hard enough if he was on his own, but since the decision was made because of the new addition, Mikkelsen’s character has to drag the wounded woman along behind him. As with most survival movies, the route is grim and brutal. Between polar bear attacks and falling ten feet through snow into a cavern, the expedition goes from bad to worse. The injured party is getting increasingly closer to death, and Mikkelsen’s character makes the tough decision to leave her behind. He doesn’t get far though before he’s reminded of the fear and isolation he’s been immersed in since he was stranded, and he turns back to deliver one of the few lines in the entire movie: ”I promise I won’t leave you alone.” But the fate of the pair remains continually imposed upon by nature, the ever present interloper.
Quiet solitude tends to not be the forte of survival movies. Arctic is unique in its stretches of silence and underpinning of human emotional pain. More commonly, films that pit their characters against the elements are bombastic and dynamic. Such is the case with William Friedkin's underappreciated-in-its-time classic Sorcerer (1977).
Fredkin has gone on record saying that he shouldn’t have been allowed to do what he did in order to make Sorcerer. Filming on location in dangerous situations is not so unheard of, but it can be hard to watch Sorcerer without thinking of just how much peril these actors were in. The film starts with a series of vignettes that explain why the four main characters find themselves living as ex-pats in a remote village in Latin America. They are each offered an opportunity that would pay out handsomely: drive two trucks filled with explosives through the jungle to a destination on the other side. The men reluctantly agree, pairing up to drive the trucks and preparing for a mission they know they won’t all survive.
The journey to deliver the explosives takes the men over an incredibly structurally unsound bridge, mudslides, and massive rainstorms. A felled tree forces them to use some of the explosives in order to move forward, but unstable ground causes one of the trucks to explode, killing the two men inside. Robbers then surround the remaining truck, killing one of the men. The lone survivor, Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), struggles to carry the cargo through to the destination–his grip on reality steadily slipping. He finishes the mission, gets what he was promised, and believes himself to be safe as an enemy from his past arrives just as the screen cuts to black.
Sorcerer takes a much seedier route when it comes to the story of humans versus nature, not to mention the wider philosophical questions about control, fate, and accepting the situations we find ourselves in. While Mikkelsen’s character in Arctic was entirely removed from civilization, the four men in Sorcerer still have one foot in society before the mission is presented to them. None of them are particularly happy with where they’ve ended up, but there’s a certain logic to the old adage of “the devil you know.” Taking this chance could get them what they want but it could also destroy them. They’ve all been able to find ways to live in the new and less than stellar conditions they find themselves in. In the end, we see just how little control anyone has. Survival is random, luck is arbitrary, and consequences can be evaded but rarely outrun.
The final film isn’t strictly a survival movie but it does involve a lot of human frailty in the face of vast wilds. Embrace of the Serpent (2016) is a Colombian movie about a two separate trips down the Amazon by white foreigners who are led by a native guide. The journeys happen at different times in history and each man has their motive, but to shaman guide Karamakate (played by Nilbio Torres as the young self and Antonio Bolívar as the older self), they are asking for miracles out of a landscape that thrives on death and madness.
In 1909, a German named Theo (Jan Bijvoet) seeks a guide to take him up the river because he’s dying and he heard that there is a plant deep in the jungle that can save him. As he and Karamakate make the journey, they encounter darkness beyond what nature can imagine. At one stop along the way they are faced with a crazed missionary and his “church,” where he is torturing young boys and declaring himself the almighty. It is a chilling scene as both men witness the depth of depravity that humans are capable of when they are trapped in a hostile environment with nothing but ego and the voices in their head. The jungle, with its dense and unforgiving habitat, makes captives and lunatics out of those who dare to stay inside it. Karamakate knew this truth in theory, but watching the horrors of the missionary is the first time he has seen it so clearly.
The second journey takes place during 1940 with a young American Evan (Brionne Davis) who is looking for the same plant but for different reasons. While Theo was after a cure, Evan is after a solution. Rubber has become scarce in the U.S. due to the war, and Evan believes that the answer to that problem lies up the river. Karamakate agrees to go on the second journey even though he knows most of the plants are destroyed. As they travel together, Karamakate stays mostly quiet yet he’s obviously perturbed by the outright greed driving the young man. He brings Evan to the final plant, explains what he’s done then prepares the plant into a hallucinogenic that Evan ingests. Karamakate tells him of his fear that there can be no peace when there is human desire, so he has ripped one portion of human desire out of the earth; he has destroyed something valuable so that there can be no value attached to it. The film ends with Evan under the influence, surrounded by butterflies, and transformed by the power of the jungle.
We walk a funny line with our relationship to the natural world. Our history is a litany of attempts to tame it or harness its power to work for us. Our current state of being seems to be set on destroying it. In our hearts, both light and dark, we know we are mainly creatures of civilization, that our evolution has pointed us towards building and creating rather than strictly survival. We have accomplished some impressive feats and yet we can so easily be reduced to prey. With that ticking inside our slowly expanding consciousness, it’s no wonder films that throw us directly into the thick of it continue to gather audiences. They speak to that uncomfortable balance we hold inside ourselves and the fear we have of being at the mercy of forces so merciless.