With summertime at last upon us in earnest and the good weather’s siren song luring us away from offices, shops and — ugh! — jobs, not to mention the imminent birthday of OG nature boy Henry David Thoreau (he’d been 202 this year, if he hadn’t kicked off at 44 from a crazily effective one-two punch of TB and bronchitis, the latter he reportedly contracted during a late-night excursion to count the rings of tree stumps during a rainstorm) it’s the perfect time to consider the wilder side of life.
Cinematically, of course, there’s no need to get all dirty or anything.
And if you too prefer a comfy couch and cool drink to what Thoreau called, “the infinite leisure and repose of nature,” but still want that special feeling that comes only from communing with Mother Earth, then I offer up these movies as a happy medium.
Some are a tad sentimental, and others depict nature as harsh and her minions indifferent, if not hostile, to we soft modern people. But all are masterful achievements and well worth your time.
So, as my own dear mother was wont to say: “Go outside and play!”
Or, you know, don’t.
1. ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ (2007)
For a very different sort of nature that what we’ve got going on around here, I recommend Werner Herzog’s doc about the wild and strange region of Antarctica — and the even wilder and stranger breed of human who chooses to live and work there.
Herzog talks with McMurdo Station service workers, an iceberg geologist, a zoologist studying seals, and a research diver, but the real star here is the stark, surreal landscape itself. This is a haunting place, and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger shoots captivating images of ice tunnels, ice mountains, ice-covered plateaus — basically, lots of snow and ice beneath endless blue skies, all accompanied by Herzog’s distinctive philosophical narration.
I was surprised to find myself moved by one now-infamous scene wherein, despite promising at the outset “I would not come up with another film about penguins,” Herzog (and thus we the audience) watches a lost penguin confidently marching in the wrong direction. Believing itself bound for the sea, the furry little bird strides toward a certain death in the barren interior of the continent, in a kind of mirror of all those lost explorers so sure they would conquer the land, as Herzog’s appropriately chilly monologue asks, “Is there such a thing as insanity in a penguin?”
2. ‘Wild’ (2014)
This Jean-Marc Vallée-helmed adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” at first did not appeal to me. Oh, I thought, yeah: Divorced woman finds self while hiking. No thanks.
I was so wrong.
This flick racked up a ton of accolades and impressed bunches of critics (including this one) and, I understand, got a whole lot of people out hiking. Also: Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, people. So what’s not to like?
It follows Strayed (Witherspoon), a divorced, recovering drug addict who, despite having almost no outdoor skills or experience, leaves Minneapolis, Minnesota, to hike 1,100 miles of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother (Dern) having recently died, a trauma that sent her into a deep depression that she tried to numb with heroin and anonymous sex, which of course destroyed her marriage.
Filmed on location in Oregon and California, the movie does a great job of seesawing between intense beauty and the harsh realities of being out in nature. Are the rewards worth the risk? They were for Strayed. Watch and see for yourself.
3. ‘The Hunter’ (2011)
Like Reese Witherspoon in the previous outing, this flick also sees our protagonist (Willem Dafoe) enter the wildness looking for something. No, not self-discovery and healing. This guy is a professional hunter hired by a shadowy military biotech company to travel to Tasmania and bring back the world’s only remaining Tasmanian tiger — a near-mythic beast thought to be extinct since the 1930s — if it exists at all, that is.
Filmed entirely in Tasmania, the film boasts “staggeringly beautiful landscapes,” in the words of Variety. I agree, knowing little to nothing about Tasmania before watching this I have to say it’s apparently a rugged, beautiful and harsh place.
Dafoe gives a typically wonderful performance and Sam “He can’t see us if we don’t move” Neill is excellent in a strong supporting role.
4 ‘Never Cry Wolf’ (1983)
To see a man trek into the wild for a very different reason, consider this little-remembered drama, an adaptation of writer/environmentalist Farley Mowat’s 1963 autobiography about his time spent observing wolves in subarctic Canada.
It stars Charles Martin Smith as a government biologist sent into the wilderness to study the caribou population, whose decline is believed to be caused by hungry wolves even though no one has seen a wolf kill a caribou. It also features Brian “He drew first blood” Dennehy, so there’s a win.
Cool aside: It was reportedly the first Disney film to be released under the then-new Walt Disney Pictures label.
New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised the film’s visuals — “The scenery is often spectacularly beautiful” — while adding that “Perhaps the best thing about the film is that the wolves are never made to seem like strange but cuddly dogs. They look like wolves, not especially threatening but still remote and complete unto themselves.”
Just like nature itself.
5. ‘K2’ (1991)
Probably my favorite mountain-set movie of all time, loosely based on the true story of Jim Wickwire and Louis Reichardt, the first Americans to summit the eponymous peak, this action-drama was shot on stunning location in Kashmir, Pakistan and British Columbia.
Michael “Come with me if you want to live” Biehn stars, alongside Matt Craven, as two longtime buddies who escape their white-collar corporate gigs by climbing mountains on weekends. During one such excursion, they meet a famed billionaire adventurer and his climbing team testing new gear, obviously preparing for a big excursion. They ultimately prove themselves to the guy and thus finagle their way onto his team, which plans to attempt K2, the second highest peak in the world.
Though it was not a commercial hit, the film’s visuals are stunning and the ever-present danger on the mountain is palpable.
6. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1954)
An oldie but a goodie, I much prefer this Luis Buñuel-helmed take on the classic Daniel Defoe novel to watching Tom Hanks chat with a volleyball for a million hours.
Daniel O’Herlihy is the titular castaway, stuck on a remote island for about 30 years with only his talking parrot, pet dog, and a tame goat for company until he assists an escaped prisoner, one of the cannibalistic Carib people who occasionally pass by, who becomes his friend/assistant/hostage.
It has some unfortunate for-it’s-time stuff going on in the race relations department, but the performances are great and the landscape lusciously depicted. The movie was primarily shot in Mexico by a crew of only 60 people, which no doubt contributed to the authentic feeling of isolation that permeates this movie.
A lot of the danger was real, too.
From Wikipedia: “The crew took daily doses of Diodoquin and aralen to guard against dysentery and malaria, respectively. A security squad of local Manzanillas kept snakes, wild boar, and other dangerous animals at bay with guns and machetes.”