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So since this show debuted at the ICP Festival and audience members started telling me about their favorites, my list of islolation movies has almost doubled in length. Right now it’s at nineteen. In no particular order they are, Cast Away, Life of Pi, Gravity, All Is Lost, The Martian, I Am Legend, Home Alone, Into The Wild, Passengers, 127 Hours, The Grey, Rescue Dawn, The Red Turtle, Silent Running, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, My Side of the Mountain, Buried, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and Moon.
Nine of these nineteen movies have non-human friends. This blog post goes into the similarities and differences between these nine companions.
Group 1: The Robots
Arthur the Robot Bartender (From Passengers)
Passengers counts as an isolation movie for the first half-hour before Jennifer Lawrence’s character wakes up. And in this half-hour, Chris Pratt’s companion is Arthur, the Robot Bartender. Arthur can listen. He can talk back. He isn’t human, which means he can’t recognize the crisis Chris Pratt’s character is in having woken up one-hundred years too early. But other than that, he’s a pretty good companion. Which (counter-intuitively) makes it a less compelling isolation movie, because it relieves Chris Pratt’s loneliness (You can’t see it in this shot, but Arthur doesn’t have any legs. Because he’s a robot)
Huey And Dewey (from Silent Running)
Allegedly the inspiration for R2-D2–and with real humans in the suits–Huey and Dewey are ridiculously charming. And, like R2-D2, they can understand humans speaking, but they can’t speak back in English. And this gulf works wonders to exacerbate Bruce Dern’s isolation in Silent Running. My only quibble (a problem fixed with C-3PO in Star Wars) is that they’re too similar to each other. There either shouldn’t be two of them, or (like in Star Wars) they should be different enough from each other to texture a relationship. They’re pretty amazing, though. Definitely worth youtubing (especially for Star Wars fans).
HAL (from 2001) and GERTY (from Moon)
So Huey and Dewey have bodies but no voices. HAL and GERTY have voices but no bodies. It’s interesting to think about. Because we trust Huey and Dewey, and they turn out to be humble heroes. But we do not trust (and, the films tell us, should not trust) HAL or GERTY. These two are especially adept at rhetoric and understanding psychology. But they’re not cute. Not in the slightest. (Sidenote: GERTY can smile, frown, or be “puzzled,” while HAL is never anything but a red dot. Less is more)
Group 2, The Animals
Gus the Raccoon (from My Side of the Mountain)
To watch My Side of the Mountain is to empathize with poor Gus the Raccoon(or raccoons, in all probability), who in every shot is just putting on a clinic in being a wild animal who doesn’t give a shit about your movie. He’s fidgeting, and twitching, and scurrying about, and not wanting to be held the entire movie. He’s clearly not responding to the kid when the kid talks to him. He’s a wild animal, damn it. And while you could make a sense for this being a metaphor for man’s loneliness and isolation as the only animal (it seems) capable of language, that’s kind of a stretch. Gus is a wild animal. You can’t not watch him be a wild animal. It reminds you you’re watching a forty-year-old children’s movie. It’s sub-optimal storytelling)
Mona the Monkey (from Robinson Crusoe on Mars)
Mona the Monkey is better trained than Gus the Raccoon. He really likes the creamed banana that comes in a toothpaste tube. He helps Paul Mantee find Mars’s system of underground lakes and rivers (it’s 60’s Sci-Fi, the science is that bad). And he’s pretty cute in his little space-suit.
The Tiger (from All Is Lost)
The tiger is great because unlike a raccoon or a monkey, a tiger dangerous. And of course (spoiler alert!), the man is the tiger. It’s all a metaphor. But in the way we are told the story, forgetting the metaphor and taking the story on face value, the tiger is a companion much like the other animals, but with an added element of danger. Good storytelling.
Sam the Dog (from I Am Legend)
According to IMDb, Will Smith really liked this dog, and even tried to buy him from the trainer, who wouldn’t sell him. He does seem like a great dog. And, as I mentioned in my Top-Ten Countdown, that’s kind of a problem for the movie, because how lonely can you really be when you have an awesome dog to hang out with?
Sam the dog also serves a dramatic purpose by dying about halfway thru the film, which serves as motivation for Will Smith to go on the zombie rampage which (I might be remembering this wrong) I believe leads to him finding the mother and son who then join him in his safe-house. So that’s the nice thing about a non-human friend. They can be a scene-partner, allowing the individual to plausibly talk at something. But then once the relationship is established we care about them, too.
And this brings me to…
Group 3: Sports Equipment
Wilson the Volleyball (from Cast Away)
Wilson is the best non-human friend, and it’s not even close. He’s a rolling, spherical expression of the basic acting tenant, Do Less. We care about him because Tom Hanks cares about him. We care about him because he exploits that most human ability to empathize with anything under the proper framing. Wilson is both a companion to Tom Hanks, but also a reminder of just how alone he is. And then, after all that, he also serves the plot much like Sam the dog when he’s lost at sea.
So what do isolation films without a non-human friend to do give the isolated individual a reason to talk?
Good question. And it varies film to film. In Buried, Ryan Reynolds is stuck in a coffin with a handy cellphone. In Gravity, before the critical reentry Sandra Bullock hallucinates her lost companion from earlier in the film, George Clooney, and talks to him. In The Martian and 127 Hours the characters have camcorders, and use them as reality-TV-style confessionals to get some exposition out of the way. Also, who says characters in isolation have to talk? In two really good isolation films, All is Lost and The Red Turtle, they just don’t.