From ‘The Revenant’ to ‘Mad Max’: why we all love a story of survival

The three films with the most Oscar nominations this year are all about battling terrifying odds.

Quickly scan this year’s film award lists and a strong theme emerges: survival. In fact, the three films with the most Oscar nominations are all about survival. There’s The Revenant (with 12 nominations), in which Leonardo DiCaprio fights to survive alone in a fierce environment after enduring a bear attack and being buried alive. Mad Max: Fury Road (with ten nominations) features Tom Hardy as a weird loner in a post-apocalyptic desert, attempting to avoid being used as a “blood bag” by its vampiric inhabitants. Finally, in The Martian (seven nominations), Matt Damon plays an astronaut who, left alone on Mars, must work out how to survive in an utterly uninhabitable environment long enough to be rescued.

All three films, then, depict figures battling to survive in hostile and seemingly hopeless conditions. Whether isolated mentally by the breakdown of society, or physically in the desolate landscapes of the wilderness and Mars, these men are united by an impulse to live on when hope seems lost.

We can trace cultural responses to the fear of having to survive, alone, in a threatening world right back to the origins of English poetry. The Exeter Book – an Old English manuscript that dates from around AD 960 – tells the stories of wanderers and seafarers (not unlike DiCaprio’s revenant) who must endure the deaths of kinsmen and travel the paths of exile, suffering frost-bound feet and being forced to paddle the ice-cold sea with their hands.

Tales of the hardships experienced by lone travellers, hermits, and strangers in foreign lands crop up time and again in literature. Arguably, the very first novel written in English, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), depicts a shipwrecked man doomed to spend 28 years removed from civilisation on a desert island.

There are certain periods in history, however, during which the interest in survival seems particularly strong, and the beginning of the 19th century was one. Texts began to appear that imagined isolated figures who not only felt completely alone in the world, but were, in fact, the last man on earth. This fashion for depicting the last man even extended into the visual arts, with the painter John Martin creating several scenes in which a lone figure stands against an apocalyptic backdrop.

John Martin, Pandemonium, c. 1825.
John Martin, Pandemonium, c. 1825.

The last man

This trend for the last man flourished throughout the 1820s, transforming the celebrated Romantic figure of the solitary into an individual who must survive alone in the world. One of the most famous responses to the theme is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), in which a ferocious plague sweeps the globe at the end of the 21st century, eventually leaving just one man, Lionel Verney, alive. Desperate to find other survivors, Lionel travels determinedly from city to city, driven by his fear that he will always “wake, and speak to none, pass the interminable hours […] islanded in the world”.

The figure of the lone survivor continued to be of interest to writers and artists in the coming centuries. In the late Victorian period, for example, H G Wells imagined a time traveller journeying to the distant future and having to survive in an unrecognisable world in which humanity has split into two distinct species: the childlike Eloi and the blood-thirsty, cannibalistic Morlocks.

Later, during the 1950s, Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend (1954) (a text subsequently adapted for cinema no fewer than three times) portrayed a single man battling for survival after a global pandemic turns all other humans into vampiric creatures.

More recently, Margaret Atwood has explored the lone survivor theme in her novel Oryx and Crake (2003), while Cormac McCarthy depicted the aftermath of the breakdown of civilisation following an unspecified disaster in his harrowing tale of survival, The Road (2006). Despite their dramatically different settings, these texts are united by their protagonists’ determination to survive in desperate conditions.


New threats

While the fear of being alone is a perennial concern, there are clearly periods in history when an interest in survival becomes part of the zeitgeist. Whether prompted by the new scientific theories of the early 19th century that highlighted mankind’s vulnerability in the universe, the anxieties concerning degeneration of the late Victorian period, or the prospect of nuclear war in the mid-20th century, there are certain threats to humanity that prompt a renewed fascination with tales of survival.

The three survival stories that have dominated the Oscar nominations this year reflect how we are currently living in just such an age of survival anxiety. In a time of threats from terrorism, potential ecological collapse, nuclear weapons, and genetically-engineered viruses, the human race faces, according to Stephen Hawking, “one of its most dangerous centuries yet”.

This collective fear has certainly prompted a trend for a cultural output that considers survival in all its forms. Despite their differences, The Revenant, The Martian, and Mad Max all depend visually on the stark image of a lone figure in a vast and hostile landscape, responding to the vulnerability of humankind with the strength of the individual. Whether he finds himself in the dusty desert wasteland of a world ravaged by nuclear war, the immense and arid surface of Mars, or the freezing wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase, the survivor figure must fight on.

This results in the message of these films ultimately being one of hope: of rescue, of return, of revenge, and of potential new beginnings. No matter how bleak the conditions or how slim the odds, we cannot help but cling to the prospect of survival.

Catherine Redford, Career Development Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.