Lost at Sea Movies: A Retrospective
This past week, Life of Pi hit theaters. The film, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, follows the adventures of a teenage boy left adrift in the Pacific on a lifeboat after a shipwreck, trapped with a Bengal Tiger. The prospect of being alone in the vast emptiness of the sea, deprived of the comforts of civilization, is one of our most primal fears. From time to time, film has dipped into exploring this setting. Here are a few notable movies that deal with castaways and survivors in the big blue.
Always looking to experiment with cinema, master director Alfred Hitchcock utilized the isolating nature of the ocean as a tool of suspense in this wartime picture. After their ship is sunk by a U-boat, a group of civilian survivors are stuck together on a small lifeboat. As their miniscule supplies run low and prospects of rescue seem increasingly poor, the characters’ senses of civility dwindles. And matters are complicated by the fact that one of them is an enemy from the ship that sunk them. Hitchcock, being who he was, was able to maximize a single location to terrific effect. And buried in the narrative is a message towards the Allied powers: that bickering amongst themselves could lead to their defeat.
Swiss Family Robinson (1940 and 1960)
Originating as a book published in 1812 by a Swiss pastor seeking to instruct people on good morals and self-reliance, this tale of a Swiss family (called Robinson) that must fend for themselves on a deserted island has been adapted to film twice. The first is memorable mostly as a curiosity (for example, it features the first screen appearance of Orson Welles), and the makers of the Disney version used it as an instructional on what not to do with their adaptation. That film ended up being a smash hit, the highest-grossing movie of its year. At this point, though, most people are probably more familiar with it through the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction featured at several Disney amusement parks.
Lord of the Flies (1963 and 1990)
William Golding’s dark fable of man’s dual civilized and savage natures is a staple of school reading lists everywhere, and has two different movie adaptations that students can use as CliffsNotes. The first, directed by Peter Brook, is a harsh, faithful visualization of the story, realizing the brutality of grade school boys in black and white. The more recent version Americanizes and modernizes the plot, which means that it loses a lot of the book’s heft (Roger Ebert commented that the kind of violence seen in the film is now commonplace in city streets). Of course, it’s also lackluster in general, in both acting and direction. Stick to the first, Criterion-released film. Although you should really read the book, as well.
The Blue Lagoon (1923, 1949, and 1980) and Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991)
Well color me surprised that the 1980 movie was based on a book. And that there were two previous films made of said book. While the silent 1920’s version and the 1949 version have gone pretty much ignored, the 1980 version achieved infamy for its depiction of teenage sexuality. The story follows two children who are stranded on a deserted island, and subsequently discover their bodies as they grow into adolescence. Brooke Shields, who played the female lead, was only fourteen at the time of filming, and had to eventually testify before Congress that of-age body doubles were used for her (numerous) nude scenes. The sequel to the film, which largely repeated the story beat-for-beat with different characters, was considerably less successful than the first.
Cast Away (2000)
Until this year’s Flight, this movie was Robert Zemeckis’s last live-action title. Almost entirely a one-man show (well, one man and one volleyball), the film follows Tom Hanks as a man struggling to survive on a small island after a plane crash. In what I consider to be a great testament to the power of cinema, the movie managed to make audiences cry over a ball drifting away from a man. Of course, that’s also pretty much all anyone remembers about the film, making it something of a one-note pop culture joke. It’s still very good, though.
Open Water (2004)
Unlike the other films on this list, the protagonists here don’t get the luxury of a boat or an island under them when they become lost at sea. It’s based on a true story, the kind that will make you never, ever want to scuba dive. A young couple are accidentally left behind by their diving group, and can do little but bob helplessly in the open ocean. Oh, and then the sharks show up. It’s like Jaws, only with no hope. And real sharks instead of a big mechanical one. It’s kind of terrifying.
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