Let’s face it, summer 2020 is an odd one for entertainment. Normally, summer movie season starts around May 1, with big, loud blockbusters and plenty of movies built around beaches, vacations, and other summer pastimes. But this summer’s blockbusters have been pushed to August or later, and quarantines have made summer block parties and travel in general look dangerous, depressing, and in many states, illegal.
Not to be all sour-grapey about it, but between bouts of worrying about the news and mourning all the events and projects that have been cancelled or postponed, why not just temporarily take the attitude that the outside world sucks anyway? It’s full of dirt and bugs and endless weather-related disasters, not to mention diseases and conspiracy theorists who deny those diseases exist. To help us all play the “I didn’t want to go outside anyway” game, here’s a suggested summer marathon of movies about how nature is lethal, people are awful, and indoors is much nicer anyway.
Gus Van Sant’s stealth anti-hiking movie Gerry, made during his “follow people around with achingly long, quiet tracking shots” period (see also: Elephant) feels like a feature-length commercial for refreshing beverages, industrial-grade air conditioners, and comfortable couches. The setup is simple: two friends, both named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck), go on a hike together, without orienteering supplies, food, or water. Inevitably, they get lost, and they gradually start to realize that just being outside can be lethal. The endless trudging that follows tests their friendship, as it lulls the audience into a stupor inspired equally by the travel sequences in the original 1996 Tomb Raider game, and the long, hypnotic takes in Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó. Gerry is visually beautiful, in a harsh, sere way, but nothing about the landscape — the jagged rocks, featureless scrub, and murderous desert — seems like it’d be fun to visit in person. This is the kind of movie that lets you experience the hazards of outside (and of other people) from a safe remove, preferably with a bowl of ice cream and a big glass of ice water.
Ever since the COVID-19 quarantines started, political leaders who’ve dragged their feet on statewide safety measures or cavalierly dismissed the safety of their own constituents have been compared to Jaws mayor Larry Vaughn, the guy who refuses to shut down the beaches on his island just because an absolutely ginormous shark chomped some girl’s legs off, and has now taken up the island as its personal hunting ground. Jaws does double duty as an “outdoors is awful” film: it suggests that anytime you’re enjoying a nice dip in the ocean, you’re probably going to get bitten in half by something you never see, and it also outright says that the people who should be trying to protect you from getting devoured will definitely prioritize their profits over your life. Even hanging out in a peaceful inlet isn’t safe. Jaws is the ultimate just-stay-indoors movie, a film that says the outdoors wants to eat us, and the government doesn’t care.
Obviously this one’s a little on-the-nose for a stay-in-quarantine list, but Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 pandemic movie (which saw a huge spike in rentals when the novel coronavirus outbreak reached America) is just about unbeatable when it comes to making audiences squirm over every surface, person, food, or beverage they’ve ever interacted with in public. The sight of grievously ill people on public transit, coughing wetly and then grasping the same rails and seats that oblivious people will later touch — that’s scary enough. A later Contagion scene that tracks the disease through Patient Zero — an American businesswoman who kicked off the pandemic just by attending a work party, then clearly spreading the disease to every waiter who cleared up her empty glasses, and every executive who shook her hand — just emphasizes how easy it is to catch an infection from someone you’ll never see, and how hazardous completely ordinary settings and activities can be.
Friday the 13th
The 1980 movie that helped kick off the decade’s slasher craze is underrated today, given that it was followed by so many subpar, routine horror movies mostly built around bloody special effects. But the original film is actually pretty chilling, for a few reasons. It’s a reminder that you never really know what’s going through other people’s heads, so just interacting with strangers can be dangerous for reasons that have nothing to do with you. And it’s also a reminder that it’s hard to see very far at night in the woods. Set at a summer camp where a killer is stalking various young people (including a barely formed Kevin Bacon), Friday the 13th spends a lot of time watching its victims from the killer’s POV, with the camera just lurking behind nearby trees, practically within stabbing distance. Most horror movies rely on some kind of isolated setting where the victims can’t easily seek sanctuary. Friday the 13th runs with that idea, turning a beautifully shot green forest into an accessory to murder, and a quiet solo canoeing trip into the ultimate terror.
Speaking of trees as accessories to murder, M. Night Shyamalan’s truly misbegotten horror movie The Happening is mostly laughable — but boy, does it mine some dread out of simple outdoor settings, where wind stirring up the leaves or the grass in a field mean a lethal wave of invisible mind-poison is on the way. The characters eventually learn that the only way to escape the death-air is to huddle indoors — but first, they have to try to literally outrace the wind to stay alive. The whole movie feels like an adult game of “the floor is lava,” except instead, the entire outdoors is lava.
The Blair Witch Project
Going back to the horror of isolated settings, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project faux-documents a film shoot gone wrong, and in the process works like a checklist of all the reasons camping and hiking aren’t worth the trouble. The protagonists get lost, stumbling around the woods in circles. They lose their map, their tempers, and their minds. One of them disappears and is later heard screaming in the night. The entire time, the forest they’re in feels somewhere between indifferent and malevolent, with the trees hiding who-knows-what, and the dark closing in. It’s another film about how limited visibility and isolation make for stomach-churning fear, and how even without an actual visible witch causing problems, just being outdoors once you don’t want to be anymore is physically and emotionally exhausting.
Speaking of being outdoors when you don’t want to be, Danny Boyle’s 2010 feature about hiker Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) might as well be subtitled The Earth Hates You and Wants to Eat You. The real-life Ralston, an outdoor enthusiast, was climbing into a canyon in 2003 when a boulder fell on him, crushing his hand and pinning his arm. He spent five days alone at the bottom of the canyon, suffering from exposure and drinking his own urine, until he finally escaped by amputating his own arm. It’s a feel-good movie about human endurance and the will to survive, and Boyle really makes those outdoor settings beautiful. But there’s a reason so many writers have waxed rhapsodic about nature’s implacability — at the end of the day, those rocks didn’t care who they crushed. When Ralston stumbles back into a less isolated hiking area and other campers see his sunburned face, missing arm, and blood-spattered body, the utter horror on their faces is clear — part “Is this guy gonna die in front of me?” and part “Is whatever got him going to get me too?”
Here’s the big problem with the outdoors: it’s full of wildlife. Horror films like to remind us that the world is full of giant snakes and sharks and alligators that don’t respect humanity’s claim to being the ultimate apex predator. Granted, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s wilderness epic is set in the 1800s, and the wilds have become a lot less wild since then. But watching a bear just come out of nowhere to batter and shred Leonardo DiCaprio into a tattered mess is still pretty intimidating, and watching him navigate the gorgeous nature around him afterward makes forests, rivers, mountains, and fields alike all feel like deathtraps. Just keep in mind, while bear attacks are still extremely rare, studies show they’re increasing worldwide. Better to be safe than to be a statistic, or the bloody remnants of Leonardo DiCaprio.
All Is Lost
Okay, so the forests want to kill us, the rocks want to kill us, the bears want to kill us, but the ocean’s still pretty safe, right? At least if you aren’t trying to swim in it, with all those sharks and giant squid and sharktopuses and who knows what down there? Not according to J.C. Chandor’s gripping survival story All Is Lost, which pits a grimly near-silent Robert Redford against the entire sea, and turns a sailing trip into a series of increasingly desperate attempts at survival. The accident that hobbles his boat is bad enough, but the storms that follow are worse, and they all amount to a reminder that being at sea is nearly as dangerous as being in outer space. There’s no drinkable water, the sun can be lethal, the only food is difficult or dangerous to acquire, and is perfectly willing to eat you, too. At least it’s pretty hard for viruses to live on salt water.
Lawrence of Arabia
While Robert Redford in All Is Lost seems to be headed for a watery grave, the cast of David Lean’s 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia is headed in the opposite direction, and it doesn’t look any more pleasant. One of the all-time great visual spectacle epics, Lawrence of Arabia spends plenty of its run time getting across the intimidating majesty of the desert, and it’s beautiful until living human beings try to enter it. The rest of the film seems designed to make people clutch their beverages. A lengthy plot arc where British army officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) accompanies a platoon of men into the desert on a daring military gambit turns into a grueling death march as the sun bakes them half to death. It’s a memorable sequence for the way things pan out when one of the men faints and is left for dead, but it’s also just a horrifying reminder of how many different kinds of Earth environments are utterly inimical to human life.
Up in the Air
A lot of the films on this list assume that people venturing into the wilds might have to face mad slashers or ship-sized sharks. But while these things do exist in real life, they’re pretty rare. What isn’t rare: the extreme tedium and trials of travel. Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air lays out all the mundane pains of getting out into the world, particularly dealing with lines, airport security, and above all, other people. Smug corporate ax-man Ryan (George Clooney) lays it all out — most travelers are slow and disorganized, and professionals like himself have to figure out all the tricks for not getting stuck behind them in line. At least, he suggests, travel lets him stay disconnected from the world and the people in it — except that the whole film winds up being about him learning how empty and pointless being on-the-go can be, how much more mature it would be to settle down to a happy life in a fixed place, and how much of his life he’s wasted on enjoying travel.
Speaking of the hazards of flight, the threat of getting on a plane and winding up seated next to a smug boor like Ryan is much higher than the threat of crash-landing in the mountains and either getting eaten by other members of your rugby team, or having to resort to cannibalism to survive. But Alive, a grueling document of a 1972 plane crash that left survivors stranded in the Andes, is still the kind of movie that’s designed to linger in the mind whenever you’re in the air. Over the course of a two-hour runtime, the teammates who don’t immediately die in the plane crash face exposure, dehydration and starvation, isolation, and internal strife. Eventually, there’s an avalanche as well. And it all happens as they watch their friends and loved ones succumb to their injuries, and as they debate the necessity of eating the dead. Couch life has never seemed so appealing.
National Lampoon’s Vacation
It’s possible to have a trip suffer a series of cataclysmic failures without a single plane going down. Vacation is another “hell is other people — especially when you’re traveling” story about an attempt at family bonding where everything goes wrong. Dealing with purse-thieves, a grouchy relative, an incompetent mechanic, unpleasant lodgings, family bickering, and every other petty inconvenience possible is bad enough before someone dies on the trip. (At least no one eats her.) And the worst of it is that it’s all meant to bring the central family closer together, so dad Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) refuses to back down and admit that everything’s going badly. Vacation is on the all-time “road trips are hell” movie list, up there with Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Little Miss Sunshine. But this one’s both particularly manic and thorough about all the potential hazards of leaving home.
Snakes on a Plane
It is very unlikely that the next time you try to leave the house and go somewhere, you’ll happen to end up on the exact plane that a criminal cartel has seeded with hundreds of venomous snakes and a pheromone designed to make them unusually vicious and vindictive. Still, why take that risk?
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