Kirsten Strayer April 29 2018

The Persistence of Life: Survival Cinema


The moving image has been a ceaseless medium for exploring the perseverance of life. While individual beings—from cockroaches to dolphins to human beings—can only experience each moment of life (and death) once, film gave the modern world repetitive duration—the ability to see moments over and over again. Every life, every death, can theoretically be played for all eternity. As André Bazin noted, “The reality that cinema reproduces at will and organizes is the same worldly reality of which we are a part, the sensible continuum out of which the celluloid makes a mold, both spatial and temporal. I cannot repeat a single moment of my life, but cinema can repeat any one of these moments indefinitely before my eyes.”

While film’s modern incarnation records and saves life to be resurrected in the future, media’s current incarnations go a step further-- imagining the continual maintenance of biological life. Microscopic cameras can film cells, the very core elements that sustain larger beings, while autonomous modes of filmmaking allow humans to studies life in the most precarious places— at high altitudes, for example, or in the farthest reaches of the oceans. And, this reach appears to spur our imaginations as well. At a moment in which the eradication of life of earth (through climate change, nuclear war, etc.) is not outside of the realm of possibility, our films struggle to examine cells and bodies that can live beyond catastrophe.

The following films explore how biological and evolutionary life persists in the face of daunting challenges and overwhelming odds. These works are characterized by life's need to replicate itself and continue in the world, these films which allows them to speculate on questions of evolution, climate change, and necessity of humans in Earth's diverse biosystems.

The merits of saving a unique individual in the face of catastrophic climate change, for example, thematically threads through shorts films Fathoms (Russ, 2014) and The Sand Storm  (Wishnow, 2016), which both explore the role of the individual in the sustenance of life. Fathoms situates itself within the grief that would necessarily come with survival. As a girl, a man, and a cat struggle to survive in a flooded world that seems empty of all other human life, the film focuses on individual memory. Sam, the young girl that has lost her family, keeps her mother, father, and brother’s odd rescued items in flowerpots, next to the plants that she’s trying to grow. While the film’s milieu illustrates the bleakness of this new, watery world, its focus on its almost-silent characters questions whether or not individual survivors can even continue when overcome with grief.

Fathoms (Joe Russ)

The Sand Storm (Jason Wishnow)

By contrast, The Sand Storm posits that the relationship between the individual and the environment as highly inextricable. The film follows four characters at the precipice of a large water shortage. A man buys cheap, extra water from a water vendor in dusty, polluted world where water is scarce, and simultaneously, his wife finds out about his extra-marital affair. Revenge, in this case, is dumping the expensive, necessary water on the floor. As the beleaguered wife step out to find (literal and figurative) greener pastures, the movie uses the emancipated woman as a figuration of the survival of natural life, even in a desolate world.

Other films use animation to think of a bigger scale—the survival of the species. In The Rise and Fall of Globosome (Geddert, 2013), animation allows us to see nature evolve on a barren, tiny, planet, then evolve itself almost to death. While the film’s message has been conveyed in film before, its animation allows for us to think about scale. Meanwhile, Evolution (Glawion, 2010) also uses animation to work through the necessity of individual death in the continued evolution of species. Individual death, in this instance, is not sad or lamentable but part of larger, more necessary part of life itself. In Evolution, it's not the individual but the species that necessitates survival.

The Rise and Fall of Globosome (Sascha Geddert)

Colm McCarthy’s feature-length film, The Girl with all the Gifts (2016), also asks how humans can collectively survive without radical evolution. In the film, a fungal disease has ravaged human kind and turned them into mindless ravagers, but those who were in utero have been born with a kind of immunity. They possess have the illness but don’t succumb to its debilitating effects. These “gifted” children are studied and even experimented on, as they may provide the cure for humankind and their possible salvation. However, one especially gifted child named Melanie proves that humans may not need to be saved as they are but are instead candidate for radical mutation.

The Girl with all the Gifts (2016)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.


Download Labocine's iOS App