Hollywood's Scariest New Villain: Random, Floating Junk

Space debris and abandoned shipping containers threaten lives in Gravity and All Is Lost, but these films caution against leaving society—and all its man-made refuse—behind.
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Warner Bros; Lionsgate

There is a new movie monster this fall, and the scariest part is that you never know how it’s going to get you. It might come hurtling at you at 20,000 miles per hour, or you might just wake up and find out it has destroyed your home while you slept. It’s not a zombie or a vampire or a serial killer or a greedy war monger. It’s not even a natural disaster. If Gravity and All Is Lost, two movies currently in theaters, are any indication, the biggest threat to humanity right now … is junk.

In Gravity, space debris from a Russian satellite system kills several astronauts and poses a recurring threat to our heroine, rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Director Alfonso Cuarón uses a deafening, threatening score to signify the debris’ arrival, much like horror directors do with their central villain. Further, the debris threatens to kill her in a manner more terrifying than any fictional monster, by sending her off to suffocate in a soundless, weightless void.

J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost strikes a far different tone with a similar threat. The film’s hero, known only as Our Man (Robert Redford), is on a solo voyage on his sailboat in the Indian Ocean when he wakes to the sound of water rushing in. A Chinese shipping container filled with cheaply made sneakers has lodged in his hull. Worse still, his radio has been damaged, so he can’t call for help. Over the course of this sparse, contemplative film, Our Man struggles to repair his ship and survive the numerous challenges the ocean throws at him.

Something about these films feels post-apocalyptic. These characters are not actually the last people on Earth, but they might as well be; they are lost in vast, uninhabitable environments with no one to rely on for help, and this scenario speaks to deep, collective anxieties about the state of the planet. You can even consider these films as part of a trend at the movies this year, as films like Oblivion and After Earth also pitted their isolated lead characters against a dangerous, post-apocalyptic planet.

Given the ample room these films give the viewer to consider the metaphorical implications of their stories, it's not crazy to infer an environmental message in them. In Gravity, the Earth that looms behind Ryan Stone is lit up with man-made electricity, but it looks like a planet on fire, a scorched earth that brings to mind the issue of global warming. After all, underlying mankind's exploration of other worlds is the suspicion that we one day may have to leave our own. In All Is Lost, the very casting of Redford, a well-known environmentalist who recently launched a campaign to urge Obama to regulate coal-fired power plants, could influence some viewers to see Our Man's landless surroundings as a vision of a post-climate-change landless earth. In both films, the use of artificial junk as the cause of catastrophe, rather than solar flares or sea storms, feels significant: It's not man vs. nature, but rather man vs. the byproducts of mankind.

But the junk in these films represent more than just a physical threat to the characters; they are symbolic of the real monster that first drove them to the edges of the world. It’s not just that these characters have gone willingly into the uninhabited areas of the universe; escaping from the things of man was their primary motivation. In the case of the minimalist All Is Lost, the lead character’s motivation is never stated—the film only has a few lines of dialogue, anyway—but his haunted eyes make it clear that he is running away from something. Why else would a retirement-age man be out on his own in the middle of the Indian Ocean?

Gravity makes these themes more overt. When Ryan is asked by her colleague what she likes most about space, she replies, “The silence. I could get used to it.” While the first half of the film is a plot-driven survival story, eventually Ryan’s emotional life takes center stage. She was traumatized by the loss of her daughter, and, even before going to space, she had made her exit from society, spending every night driving around town, afraid to go home and begin the healing process. The film eventually equates Ryan’s survival with her re-entrance into the world. Once she decides that she wants to return to Earth, her survival feels assured.

But it is the fact that their escape plans go so poorly in the first place that will resonate most deeply with audiences. While their trips to space and the ocean seem simple at first, the things of man have a way of intruding on them—in the form of those satellite parts and that shipping container—and they are far worse off for not having anyone around to lean on. Gravity and All is Lost function as cautionary tales for those of us who might consider bailing on society altogether, as they show us in no uncertain terms that escape doesn’t work.

Although Clooney and Redford are known for their liberal politics, the underlying message of these films is ultimately a conservative one. They don’t really challenge our values at all. Instead, they promote the status quo—a conservative concept—by gently reinforcing the fragile bonds of our society. Given the pessimism—over government shutdowns, potential defaults on our national debt, and ominous climate change predictions—currently engulfing us, you can’t blame someone for wanting to just rise above it all or escape to a place a little more serene.  The heroes of these stories start off having already escaped the problems of man, but then they come up against much bigger ones and are reminded of the benefits of being part of a community. At a time when the signs of societal breakdown seem to be increasing by the minute, Gravity and All Is Lost leave us with a simple message: Don’t bail on the world. It’s scarier without it.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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