Courtesy of IFC Films
'The Loneliest Planet' stars Gael García Bernal (l.), Hani Furstenberg (r.), and Bidzina Gujabidze (center).

Two backpackers explore the country of Georgia in 'The Loneliest Planet'

( Unrated ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'The Loneliest Planet' starts off slow, then hits the audience with a shock when the two travelers are attacked.

In “The Loneliest Planet,” the sensual thrill of being a stranger in a strange land is what propels two young backpackers to venture into the mountainous Khevi region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Alex (Gael García Bernal) and his fiancée, Nica (Hani  Furstenberg), have hired a grizzled guide, Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), to help them negotiate the journey. Except for a brief prelude, and a crucial interlude halfway through, these are pretty much the only people we see for the entire movie.

The wonder is that so much emotional resonance comes through despite these limitations. The dialogue is more than spare – it’s sparse. Long stretches are wordless. For a while, I enjoyed the scruffiness of the trip, the vistas, the affable, going-nowhere ambience. But I also began to wonder just why we were watching this journey. As naturalism it was lovely, but as drama it was somewhat inert. I chalked this restlessness up to my bad Hollywood habits. Why, I wondered, can’t I just sit back and enjoy the ride without expecting (hoping?) it turns into “Deliverance”?

Well, it doesn’t go the “Deliverance” route, but that crucial interlude, in which the three are set upon by mountain people, changes everything. And deepens everything. Now we can see why writer-director Julia Loktev leads up to this scene in such a carefree manner. She wants the shock to hit us in the same way that it hits Alex and Nica.

Loktev loosely based her screenplay on a short story, “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” by Tom Bissell, which was in turn derived from Hemingway’s great story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In all these versions, the man, in this case Alex, responds to threats in a less-than-heroic way that irreparably alienates his woman’s affections.

“The Loneliest Planet” – the title is a sly riff on the “Lonely Planet” guide book ethos – captures how a joyous adventure can suddenly swerve off the tracks in ways that are life-changing. Alex, who is apparently Mexican, and Nica, an American with flame-red hair, are not given much back story. They are meant, I think, to be iconic – innocents abroad. We, in fact, learn more about Dato’s life, and why he only feels free in the mountains.

But Alex and Nica are so recognizable to us that it’s easy to identify with their iconography. In a sense, they are us, or at least our hippie-ish avatars. This is why, when things darken, their distress, which they are barely able to communicate to each other or absorb, hits us, too.

The large flaw in “The Loneliest Planet” is that Loktev stages the confrontation rather confusingly. What is supposed to be cowardice on Alex’s part actually comes across as something far less benighted. This throws off the rest of the movie’s game plan, since Nica, probably unintentionally, comes across as somewhat petulant. If you restage the confrontation in your own mind to conform to what ensues, it all works better.

Loktev, aided by a marvelous score by Richard Skelton, has a great feeling for the mysteriousness of wide-open spaces. There are extraordinary sequences where you feel as if the entire universe is spread out before you in all its harmonious wonder and terror. “The Loneliest Planet” is not a perfect work of art, but it gets at something powerful: the way that life can turn us around in a flash, without warning. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Two backpackers explore the country of Georgia in 'The Loneliest Planet'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today