In Movies, Sometimes The Best Villain Is The World Itself

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By Daniel Faris.

Since man’s earliest days, his ongoing struggle with nature has been the stuff of epic poetry. Fighting floods, droughts, storms, cold, heat, wild animals, and other humans has kept our race constantly clawing for the right to live another day. When you think about it, it’s actually perfect. Not the battle itself, but the antagonist.

The world can be scary – terrifying, even – and that makes adventure stories take on a totally different tone than the cookie cutter “megalomaniacal arch nemesis” conceit we’re all used to. Casting the world as the powerful opponent and man as the valiant underdog draws fans and turns movies into cult classics, ready for induction into the Library of Congress.

The four films below are just some of the cinematic works in which the world itself is seen as something wild and big and nearly unbeatable. If it isn’t portrayed as the enemy, nature still plays the part of the antagonist trying to destroy the hero. Not all of these movies are science fiction – some are docudramas or dramas, which means that the hero could ride a wild mustang, or a ’98 Mustang. If you haven’t seen all of these movies, they’re thought provoking and worth your time.

The Matrix (1999): A blockbuster loved by fans for years, this film grossed over $400 million when it was released in 1999. The hero, Neo (portrayed by Keanu Reeves), discovers one day that what he perceives as reality is no more than a computer generated fiction designed to subdue the human population of his dystopian world. With that newfound knowledge, he sets out to rebel not against men but against the world itself.

Grizzly Man (2005): Premiering in 2005 at the Sundance Film Festival, this docudrama-type film chronicles a rare instance (on film at least) where man and nature went head to head and man lost. This is common enough in real life, but certainly less so in the movies. Showing the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, the man who lived with grizzly bears, the film consists of his own eerie footage that was shot prior to his death and interviews with people who knew him. It isn’t as suspenseful, since we know how it ends right from the beginning, but this film portrays the bleak struggle between man and nature in a startling light.

Castaway (1986): It may sound idyllic, but this 1986 film favorite portrays the struggle of one man and one woman against nature – an entity that is determined to break them. The film opens with a weary business man placing a newspaper ad for a woman. He wasn’t looking for a housekeeper; he wanted someone to spend a year with him on a desert island. When he finds the right one and they start on their time away from it all, this couple finds more than they bargained for when they have to fight to stick it out. The picture of human strength in the face of an aloof, uncaring world is clear.

Rescue Dawn (2006): A perhaps under-appreciated Werner Herzog film, this 2006 offering pits two escaped prisoners of war against a muddy, danger-ridden river during the Vietnam War. Based on the story of a real-life escapee from a Cambodia prison camp, this film brings to life the idea of a man being at the mercy of something as strong and powerful as a swollen river and yet still surviving to tell the world.

From big screen to film festival, nature makes a great antagonist. Maybe it makes us feel strong and triumphant when the climax arrives and humankind is the winner of the fight for survival. Since our earliest days, that strength has been a source of pride, making it understandable that films of this nature become instant favorites. The violence and conflict between groups of men and women are all well and good, but the mind-boggling twist on what we consider reality, or the world, or nature, or the beasts of the earth, can have a startling effect on how we experience film.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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