Yesterday I popped one of D's many DVDs into the DVD player: Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn.
The story is based John Krakauer's book of the same name. The book tells the story of Chris McCandless's journey through the United States to Alaska, where he planned to live in the wild for a few months before returning to civilization. Because it's a true story, I have no qualms about talking about the story here (or revealing 'spoilers') or my reaction to the film. (I haven't read the book yet.)
McCandless, after graduating from Emory University, finds the eternal American quest for more material things and career success repulsive. He gives the vast majority of his college fund to charity ($24,000), cuts up all his identification (except his Social Security card, which he burns), buys a few necessities, and sets off on foot across the U.S.
Along his travels he meets various people, all of whom he manages to touch deeply. Yet he has cut off his family by not letting them know his plans. They hear nothing from him directly, though the police in Arizona find his car. To his family he becomes a missing person, and their lives become shadows of what they once were. Yet at first it seems they have no real reason to worry. Chris does fine in his travels and meets wonderful, if quirky, people.
The film juxtaposes his travels and his time in Alaska, and we see an obviously generous young man who cannot forgive his parents for their mistakes. The people he meets along the way encourage him to contact his family, but he ignores this advice. They also try to convey a deeper truth: He won't find what he's looking for in Alaska, in the wild. In order to be truly happy, he has to be willing to share it.
Chris finally makes it to Alaska, where he crosses a stream and finds an abandoned bus with some necessities and niceties. (There's a wood-burning oven and a mattress, some silverware, and even a can opener.) He dubs it the Magic Bus and fills his days hunting for small game, talking to himself, writing, and reading the few classics he has brought with him.
Fall gives way to Winter, which in turn gives way to Spring. Now Chris decides he is ready to go home. But at the stream he finds the winter snow has melted, turning the stream into a rushing river. He is trapped.
His days become an increasingly futile attempt at survival. He fails to skin big game in time to prevent flies and maggots. He accidentally eats poisonous plants (that look similar to their non-poisonous brethen), which he initially survives, but the experience weakens him a great deal and hastens his starvation because, even if he could find game, the plants inhibit digestion. As you watch, you realize he hasn't considered the utter indifference of Nature to us humans. He romanticized the wild. Yet you feel for the boy because he now realizes what people were telling him was right: alone in the wilderness, he is no good to anyone. You watch in horror as an already small man becomes tinier. Soon, even if there were game, he is too weak to hunt it. When he realizes he is going to die, he makes a sign that identifies him and says goodbye.
I'm not sure how I feel about this film, other than it stayed with me. I didn't expect Chris to die. I thought, like a typical American, that he would find a way out. But he didn't. The film did touch off a minor essay in my head regarding technology vs. nature. I think many people who claim to 'love' nature don't—they admire nature. We all claim to love being out in it, and we do for very short periods of time, but eventually we want our technological comforts. People like Chris really do love nature, and had he been a bit older he might have been more aware of nature's indifference humans, and therefore a little more prepared. It took an older man whom he befriended for him to have a machete, a knife, and a fishing rod. I think Chris's mistake—and you see it throughout the film—is that a larger part of him than he would like to admit accepts both technology and humans. It takes total isolation for him to see that. Yet, if he had never gone, he may never have been able to work out his demons.