Against All Odds: Survival Drives Drama in Key 2015 Oscar Contenders

Films like 'The Revenant,' 'Everest,' 'Room' and 'The Martian' work within a recurring archetypical storytelling framework.

THE REVENANT Leonardo Dicaprio
Courtesy of Regency Entertainment

Just as it was in 2013 when films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “All Is Lost” found themselves in the thick of the Oscar race, survival against seemingly insurmountable odds pops up once again as a theme this season. Whether it’s staying alive in an extraterrestrial world (Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”), weathering unforgiving elements (Baltasar Kormakur’s “Everest”), maintaining a pulse in a hostile environment (Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant”) or keeping the human spirit alive while held prisoner (Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room”), it remains a compelling framework on which to attach drama.

“I think it’s one of the recurring archetypal stories, and it’s always going to be told in various ways,” Abrahamson says about that most instinctive of human traits that often results in the most extraordinary actions. “It can be told in a very operatic, large-scale way or it can be told in tiny stories.”

Each situation is marked by specific, character-defining survival mechanisms as well. In “Room,” for instance, the imprisoned lead character Joy (Brie Larson) must make a life for the 5-year-old son she had while held captive in a small shed.

“My working assumption was that having this kid was the best thing that could have happened to this woman,” says novelist and screenwriter Emma Donoghue.

Adds Abrahamson, “She says, ‘When Jack came, everything changed.’ He’s her project and her salvation, both in that he’s instrumental in getting them both out, but also he becomes a way that she can make sense of her days. It’s this incredible imperative.”

In “The Martian,” screenwriter Drew Goddard felt it important to reflect the novel’s lighthearted quality as astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) maintains his composure with good humor after being marooned on Mars. “It has this optimistic soul to it, which is not something you see a lot in science fiction,” Goddard says.

Goddard approached the material almost as a religious film, only the religion happens to be science and problem-solving. “It’s the same idea of being lost alone and you have nothing but faith to get you through it,” he says. “In this case, the faith was in science.”

The climbers of “Everest” also find themselves stranded amid life-threatening conditions, albeit on this planet. Kormakur recognizes the existential ramifications of such material. (Three years ago he explored similar ideas in the Icelandic drama “The Deep,” the true story of a fisherman forced to survive in the freezing ocean after his boat capsized in the North Atlantic).

“Novels are a very good way of explaining things like that,” says Kormakur, who used alpine locations in Nepal and Italy for “Everest,” “but in cinema, you have an opportunity to just live it. There’s no other medium that can actually take you through the elements.”

Even still, the quality he was after is one he’s felt is missing in most Hollywood films. “Everything is so manicured, even the sets and the environment,” he says. “You have a hard time feeling the reality of the situation. So I wanted to just hook you on a line with a bunch of guys and take you up the mountain and make you understand what these people are doing.”

Indeed, such material allows actors to reach a more realistic place with their performances as well. That was important for Kormakur, and for Inarritu, who shot most of “The Revenant” in the frigid conditions of Alberta, Canada, with natural light and precious few creature comforts.

“It kind of strips you down in a great way,” says Mary Parent, a producer on the film. “There were times on set when we looked at each other and you felt like you were dropped into another world.”

So why, beyond the obvious archetypal notions, does this framework pop up so much in storytelling?
“I think it’s primal,” Parent says. “It’s ingrained in us, who we are as human beings, the desire, the will, to survive.”

But Scott has a different consideration. Pondering a breed of post-apocalyptic storytelling so prevalent as of late, he says it might say something about the metaphysical ticking clock of humanity’s precious time on earth.

“I think it’s driven by the fact that, deep down, we are concerned about ‘What if?’” he says. “And indirectly, global politics always have a bearing on what’s on the mind of filmmakers. Like the Chinese talking about reducing their emissions by 30% by the year 2027. You go, ‘What?! Are you f***ing crazy? That’s another 14 years! We can’t do this!.’ I think it’s in everybody’s psyche, this definitive anxiety.”