🎬 #28 The Dark Journey Into Light.
“Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” Paradise Lost - John Milton.
Maybe like a lot of people I first heard John Milton’s words from David Fincher’s Se7en. To this day it remains a favourite quote of mine, not so much for the religious connotations but more for personal journeys. It’s hard to achieve ‘light,’ to surmount a journey from the ‘darkness’ you find yourself in, no matter what form that may take. I also love it for its almost perfect summation of the basic building block of narrative storytelling.
Almost every story has a journey from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’ as its backbone. Whether that’s an internal journey or a physical journey out into the world. No matter what, there are primal struggles and obstacles that raise the stakes along the way and it’s through dealing with these challenges that the central character transforms.
Perhaps the most literal interpretation of this structure is the survival thriller. Which both this week’s films are - one I feel is vastly underrated and the other is a classic I recently revisited and had a whole new understanding of.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: DELIVERANCE
1972 Dir John Boorman
Deliverance is famous for two scenes, but these two scenes alone don’t do justice to the film. These are the two scenes that, like everyone else, I knew the film for when I was younger. But it wasn’t until recently when I rewatched it that I realised this is something that’s much bigger thematically than I had ever appreciated before. It’s a film that goes beyond those iconic, ‘played out’ moments and tells the real story of a journey gone wrong and what that does to the characters who are at the mercy of the elements.
I love its bravado opening which sets-up the desire for this group of men to literally go into the woods, into the darkness. It plays out their conversation over images of industrial deforestation and the destruction of the natural habitat they want to escape to before its too late.
This singular sequence almost catches us off guard and tells us an important lesson visually in the first few minutes of the story. Sometimes people shouldn’t go where they don’t belong. And so begins the journey of a few city men into the wilderness. A journey that will change them all forever.
This film is so effective because all the stakes are primal. It becomes about pure physicality, about survival, as their planned canoe trip goes over a metaphorical cliff, never to return to normality. The performances, particularly from Voight, are strong throughout, he plays the second most experienced ‘outdoorsman’ while Reynolds plays the alpha male of the pack. Their guide into their unknown territory.
From their first encounter - there is a feeling that they are entering an unknowable land, a place they don’t really understand. The rules here are different. Their ways of life are not applicable - and as they journey further into the woods that becomes all the more apparent. Even living basically is a struggle in the new territory they find themselves in. Soon they must leave all the comforts they’ve brought from home behind. As the stakes rise, the physical journey becomes a means by which Voight’s character Ed rises up the ranks, he becomes the new alpha in many ways. The jeopardy of the situation and the isolation forcing him to become ‘wilder,’ to become a different man.
Even the physical production of the picture renders the actions on screen all the more primal - with all of the actors doing their own stunts, uninsured. This resulted in Reynolds suffering multiple injuries and ending up in hospital. The oppressive nature of the environment is writ large on all the key cast. Boorman put them through the same journey as the characters.
This kind of film is the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling. The actions and decisions of characters manifested physically into a transformative journey - the internal made external. This is why Deliverance needs to be rewatched and discovered again, it’s the perfect parable of a character’s journey into unknown darkness and his emergence, as a changed being, through hardship, into light. Never to be the same again.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 49 mins of my precious life watching this? Embark on an expedition into unknown territory as Boorman’s classic offers a masterclass in cinematic storytelling - as four men emerge changed forever because of their physical and metaphorical journey into the woods.
*Available for a small rental fee on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, Sky Store.
Fact: The novel’s writer James Dickey plays the Sheriff of the area the men find themselves in. He also broke Boorman’s nose and knocked out several of his teeth after a disagreement on how he was handling Dickey’s source material.
Bonus: The Coen Brothers were planning a silent adaption of Dickey’s other ‘survival’ novel ‘To The White Sea’ and I believe it remains one of the legendary un-produced screenplays.
FILM TWO: SUNSHINE
2007 Dir Danny Boyle
One of the most powerful things about Danny Boyle’s first and only foray (so far) into science fiction is that, similarly to Deliverance, this is primal story of survival. And not only of the crew, but of everyone on Earth. The premise is startling simple - in the near future the sun is dying out and unless it can be ‘restarted’ - life on Earth will be a cold, dead memory. One of a series of collaborations with Alex Garland, Boyle directs from Garland’s script with a great cast lead by a young Cillian Murphy who truly broke into the big time with Boyle’s own 28 Days Later [also written by Garland].
The film begins even before the first frame of actual story with one of the loveliest tweaks to a studio logo I’ve ever seen. You might not even notice it unless you’re really paying attention, (I only caught it because Boyle points it out in his director’s commentary) but it’s this kind of playful detail that makes Boyle, Boyle.
The crew of scientists and astronauts embark on their literal journey from a cold earth, through the dark expanse of space and end in the light of the Sun they must save. Through a series of set backs and obstacles they encounter along the way they all are transformed.
One of the most interesting ideas in the film is that characters can become addicted to viewing the sun. Its awesome power somehow transforming you into a ‘creature’ needing that heat to be ever greater, the dose of Vitamin D to be ever stronger.
Boyle with his cinematographer Alwin Küchler render the film between awe inspiring, almost God-like depictions of the sun’s hot amber glow and the darker, more stark human environments within the Icarus space craft.
Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada and Mark Strong round out the impressive cast. With Boyle insisting they all live together so that they could bond as the crew would on such a long journey in tight confines. Their chemistry is clear from the off and again the physicality of their performances and the material limitations of the set help bring a keen reality to the action. Lending a strict, sweaty and real series of consequences to their choices.
Boyle’s vision together with the excellent score by John Murphy and Underworld create a remarkable expeditionary journey that takes us on a long hot voyage into light where we find the darkest of humanity lurking amongst us.
*Available for free on Disney Plus and Amazon and for a small rental fee on Google Play, YouTube, and Apple.
Fact: The lighting effects created for the sun where a combination of physical lighting rigs and CGI. In fact, MPC, one of the biggest post production houses in the UK, co-produced the film.
Bonus: Brian Cox, now famous Physicist, was an advisor on the film.
Thanks for reading Video Shop ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.