The movies we’re going to take on today are good old fashioned disaster movies, boys and girls. More specifically, movies about Man Vs. The Ocean. This is a solid sub-genre, with some worthy members. You can start with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which featured an ocean liner getting hit by a tsunami, and then Gene Hackman tries to get everyone out alive. I haven’t seen it, but it’s supposed to be solid. There are others, like Titanic (1997), which we’ve all seen, and the classic Jaws (1975), which might be more Man Vs. Ocean Wildlife, but let’s say it counts.
Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) is kind of a War Movie/Man Vs. The Ocean hybrid, but very well regarded. There’s The Perfect Storm (2000), where George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg play Massachusetts fishermen who aren’t so wicked smaat (that’s smart in New England). One of my favorites is James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), which features Ed Harris in a high-tech dive suit breathing oxygenated dish soap. With The Abyss, Titanic, and all the documentary work he produced about the real Titanic, it’s safe to say Cameron was obsessed with Man Vs. The Ocean for a large part of his career.
I recently saw the newest entries to the sub-genre, The Impossible (Man, Woman + 3 Boys Vs. Tsunami), and Life of Pi (Man Vs. Ocean Storm, then Man Vs. Being Adrift In The Pacific). They both belong in this category, but they are very different movies. If you’re trying to decide which one you might prefer, or you’re comparing and contrasting, let’s go to the tale of the tape*:
* I saw both movies alone, at the same theater, one day apart, in the early afternoon, all to improve the scientific validity of this comparison for you, the reader. Reports that I cried in both are not relevant.
Category: Man vs. The Ocean (Tsunami)
Starring: Naomi Watts (nominated for Best Actress), Ewan McGregor, several child actors
Plot Synopsis: Family goes on vacation, tsunami hits, family tries to find each other
Based On: A real story of a French/Spanish family on vacation in Thailand in 2004
Tone: Massively sad, hyper-realistic drama focused on survival after a terrible tragedy
Moral: Shit happens
Interesting Fact: The real family is better looking than the actors
Life of Pi
Category: Man Vs. The Ocean (Storm, Adrift On The Open Sea)
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, several CGI animals
Plot synopsis: Family from India heads out on cargo ship with their zoo animals to move to Canada, storm sinks ship, only youngest son survives, on a lifeboat, with a Bengal Tiger
Based On: A fictional novel, published in 2001
Tone: Uplifting, almost fairy-tale-like adventure that tests a boy’s survival skills and faith in God
Moral: God is watching over us when shit happens
Interesting Fact: The animals in the movie are mostly computer-generated
The Impossible is gritty realism; an entire movie where the actors are literally covered in grit. There are no showers, or running water, or much of anything else after the tsunami, really. After the waves hit, the tourists and the native Thai are only focused on survival and finding friends and family. The Bennett family (the Belón family in real life) fly to Thailand for a Christmas beach vacation. On their third day, the waves hit their beach resort with no warning, and the family is separated into two groups, each not knowing if the others are alive. Given the destruction around them, it seems most likely that they are not.
This is the tsunami as seen by the individual, shot to show the real physical and emotional toll of the survivors in the immediate aftermath. Spanish-directed and produced (but in the English language), director Juan Antonio Bayona decided to use large-scale models and large water tanks so that most of the scenes use real water, not CGI. The scenes of Maria and Lucas underwater, being battered by tree roots and debris as the waves strike, are particularly frightening. The only scene in the entire movie that is “not real” is Maria’s flashback as she goes under anesthesia before surgery, where she relives the first wave hitting. “Think of something nice,” the nurse says. Even the dream sequences are terrifying.
I thought for a moment that this movie might be like the movies and television shows I constantly complain about, those that use the suffering of children to cheaply manipulate the emotions of the audience. I decided that since this is an entire movie about human suffering, and not just a plot device meant to get a rise out of the viewers (I’m thinking about you, Rust and Bone), it was somehow OK. They went big, but I knew what I was in for. Despite being tough to get through, it’s still an $8.00 movie.
Opposite of The Impossible, Life of Pi seems like it could entirely be a dream, or a children’s book come to life, or a color-saturated fairy tale. The movie has been adapted from a novel by Yann Martel, and tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, a boy named after a swimming pool in Paris. He is inquisitive as a child in Pondicherry, India, and soon begins to worship God as a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Muslim, all at the same time. His father, who runs a zoo, tolerates his son’s religious activities but encourages him to use reason to guide his life. He doesn’t listen.
A few years later, the zoo begins to fail financially, and Pi’s father decides to move the family to Winnipeg, Canada. He loads his family and all the zoo animals (which he intended to sell) on a freighter headed for North America across the Pacific. The boat sinks and Pi (now a teenager) survives only because he went above deck to watch the storm. This is where is starts to get fanciful: Pi left the freighter on a lifeboat, which contains not only him, but a Zebra, a Hyena, and an Orangutan who floated over on a fishing net full of bananas.
The animals don’t get on too well. Zebra kicks Hyena, Hyena kills Zebra, Orangutan punches Hyena, Hyena kills Orangutan, and then, surprise surprise, out from under the lifeboat tarp, Bengal Tiger attacks and kills Hyena and eats them all. Pi escapes the Tiger by making a raft of life jackets and oars, ties it to the boat, and floats just out of the Tiger’s reach. And so begins Pi’s journey of survival on the ocean, which is full of wonderful and dangerous things. Plus there’s the Tiger on his boat.
The movie is narrated by Pi Patel in middle age, who is telling his story to an author interested in the adventure of his youth. He tells the author that when he finally landed in Mexico and was saved, officials from the Japanese shipping company that owned the sunken freighter listened to his fantastic story but did not believe him. He then told a more conventional story of four people ending up in the lifeboat, but the other three ended up killing each other, and only he survived.
Pi asks the author which story he prefers, and the author chooses the one with the animals. But now the seed of doubt has been planted – is Pi’s Tiger story true, or did he imagine it to block out the horror of his reality? Strange things can happen to someone’s mind after 227 days at sea. Now we must have faith in Pi to believe his amazing story of faith. It’s an interesting twist at the end of this colorful, beautifully-shot, fairy tale adventure, which I will also give an $8.00.
So I put the question to you: do you like your disaster movies more like Saving Private Ryan (horrific beach scenes, first-person realism, destroyed landscape) or like The Lion King (father dies, son returns from exile, colorful animation)?
Jay Kelly blogs at The Head Fake.