MOVIES about survival in the wilderness have a long history, and most members of the breed can be divided into two categories. Some put their characters through terror and torture merely to exploit fear about the dangers of untamed places. Others take a more responsible approach, using the lost-in-the-wilderness motif to illustrate the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit.
When two new pictures about survival turned up on my screening schedule this month, I wondered which of these directions they would choose. I'm pleased to report that both take the more positive pathway, although they each contain enough harrowing moments to mandate caution for sensitive moviegoers.
"Alive" is based on Piers Paul Read's best-selling book about an Uruguayan rugby team whose airplane crashed in the Andes Mountains, leaving several survivors who managed to exist for about ten weeks under appalling conditions until two of them managed to reach an isolated valley community and guide a mission to rescue the others. One of the group's survival strategies was to use the bodies of crash victims as food, and advance word on the film version of "Alive" suggests that some moviegoers think this what the picture is all about.
In fact, the issue of cannibalism dominates only a couple of scenes and is handled quite thoughtfully. The group's decision is based on a reasoned discussion of two facts: that the frozen bodies are no more than earthly remains and have nothing to do with the true selfhood of the deceased individuals; and that the survivors would want their remains to be used in this way if it meant their comrades would survive and see their loved ones again. The choice is thus related to selflessness rather than greed, and once this is arrived at, the film moves on to other matters.
None of this means "Alive" is a particularly great or insightful movie. Although it's lively enough to stave off boredom, the screenplay has plenty of lifeless dialogue - an unusual failing from John Patrick Shanley, who wrote it - and the characters are poorly sketched out as individuals, except for a couple of heroic types who take over the story at key points.
Part of the problem lies with the performers, including Ethan Hawke and Vincent Spano (how like Hollywood to make a film about Uruguayans with a conspicuously American cast!) and part must be attributed to director Frank Marshall, who shows little inventiveness in guiding them.
What the movie does have in its favor is a refreshingly optimistic view of human fortitude, and an unusual willingness to suggest that higher powers may have a part to play in meeting human needs. It's also splendidly photographed by Peter James, whose crisp mountain images will have you shivering. @BODYTEXT =
HE other new survival movie, "A Captive in the Land," is more ambitious, using the story of two men stranded in the Arctic - an American meteorologist and a Russian pilot - as a metaphor for the cold-war tensions that beset much of the world between World War II and the Soviet Union's recent disintegration. The movie itself reflects growing Russian-American cooperation, since it's a joint venture by a US production company and the Gorky Film Studio in Moscow, where the interior scenes were filmed. Americ an filmmaker John Berry directed it.
There are a few stirring moments as the two heroes struggle to understand each other as well as cope with the challenges of their situation, and the movie provides vivid views of the Arctic locations where its outdoor portions were shot. Sam Waterston and Alexander Potapov also turn in solid performances.
Still, it seems a little late to be exploring the cold war in such heavily symbolic terms, and the melodrama often seems stagy and contrived. It's a well-meaning picture, but it doesn't have enough imagination to become as involving as it would like.
* `Alive' has an R rating for crash scenes considered too intense for unaccompanied children; it also contains some vulgar language and images of cannibalism. `A Captive in the Land' has no rating but contains some harrowing scenes of danger and near-death.