Audiences have always enjoyed the vicarious thrill of disaster films—the bigger, sometimes the better. In 1928, Hollywood flushed out the first version of Noah’s Ark, followed in ’33 with Deluge (just out on Blu-ray) in which a tidal wave engulfs the Big Apple.
The atomic age and science-fiction embraced the theme of apocalyptic destruction with real fervor in films like When Worlds Collide (’53), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (’61), Crack in the World (’65), No Blade of Grass (’70), and many more—lots of them very good, some dreadful.
There was also a glut of post-apocalyptic films dealing with the survivors of Armageddon—like Arch Oboler’s Five (’51), Ray Milland’s Panic in Year Zero! (’62), and most recently the flood of zombie films which, at their core, are about the same thing—what it will take to survive when the world as we know it is no more.
Two recent independent films deal with the same concept, but with a quality and focus that may appeal to those who’ve had their fill of special effects and guts ’n’ gore. And there’s one other unusual tweak—each presents something of a feminist twist on the familiar template.
Into the Forest (2015) stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood are on their own after the lights and the power literally go out. The film offers no explanation for the phenomenon. The residents of a small Northwest community where the girls live with their father naturally speculate about terrorism, but whatever the cause, the problem (make that “catastrophe”) seems to be worldwide.
Eva (Wood) and Nell (Page) are lucky to have Robert, an enterprising father (Callum Keith Rennie); in the early days of the “event,” he prepares for survival in their isolated rural home. Though his daughters are caught up in their own separate expectations—for Eva, a dance audition; for Nell, a boyfriend (Max Minghella)—Robert is far more practical. Unfortunately, he’s also extremely vulnerable.
Based on Jean Hegland’s 1996 novel, Into the Forest was adapted for the screen and directed by Patricia Rozema; her earlier films include Mansfield Park (’99)—another good Jane Austen adaptation—and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (’08), which one reviewer described as “the Citizen Kane of American Girl doll movies.” (Wish I’d thought of that one!)
The focus of Forest is the relationship between two sisters who are in many ways quite different but whose courage and love for each other lets them confront (and survive) some rather awful odds. For an obvious one, in a situation where two young women are alone in a world going to hell, the threat of violence and rape is a terrifying reality.
At the same time, the film most certainly does not demonize men. There are bad ones, sure, but there are also good. Besides, sexual violence is only one of the dangers in this new world.
Beautifully filmed and very well-acted, for the most part Into the Forest foregoes the usual horrors of such films to concentrate on the process of survival which binds and bonds the girls. Both realistic and moving, it makes us ponder what really matters.
Here Alone (’16), directed by Rod Blackhurst from David Ebeltoft’s script, manages to approach the zombie phenomenon from a fairly new viewpoint, an accomplishment in itself given today’s over-abundance of zombie dreck.
The movie opens with Ann (Lucy Walters), a young woman who’s made her home in the woods, foraging for food in a variety of ways, her refuge from the elements by turns a tent or her rusted car. Through a series of flashbacks that run throughout the film, we learn how and why she got there and what happened to her husband and baby, important backstories whose climaxes are slowly revealed.
As it turns out, a virulent plague (starting with a circular rash on the stomach) has turned most folks into carnivorous zombie-like creatures—we see them rarely in the film. Necessity occasionally forces Ann to scavenge a local homestead which the diseased have taken over, but mostly she’s gone into total isolation for safety. Her only contact with the outside world is an occasional French-language radio broadcast, indicating someone, somewhere is also alive.
Ann’s self-contained existence is radically altered after she reluctantly comes to the aid of a man (Adam David Thompson) and his teenage stepdaughter (Gina Piersanti). The film’s major focus (as well as its surprises) deals with the evolving dynamics among the three survivors.
Like the 2012 German film The Wall and the ’09 film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, these two new films about trying to survive the apocalypse are both intelligent and provocative, rich in characterization but muted (though realistic enough) when it comes to violence. If you’re interested, give them a look.