-Isolation Double-Features

9 Movies to Remind You: It Could Be Worse

At the start of COVID, we thought it would be fun to keep track of how many days we’ve been locked down here in Los Angeles. Well, now that we’re on day 189, it’s not so fun anymore. In fact, it’s starting to feel a little like prison. 189 days is a long time to be physically cut off from the world. My mother just turned 80 and I couldn’t even hug her. So yes, I’ve needed the escape of movies as much as anyone, and films like Palm Springs and The Old Guard have helped a LOT. But even I have to admit that, sometimes, there’s something cathartic in watching a movie that taps into exactly what I’m feeling and brings my anxieties out into the open.

So, if watching all those movies with people doing old-fashioned things like hugging each other, eating in restaurants, walking in a crowd or taking a vacation has gotten you down, here are some suggestions for movie pairings that just might take the edge off your own stresses as you meet characters who have it so much worse than you. As Rita Coolidge sang, “we’re all alone,” and these movies revel in it.

LIFE OF PI (2012) & CAST AWAY (2000)

Two Oscar-winning directors are at the top of their game in these films that are as much about the awesome power of nature and an individual’s place in it than they are about survival. Life of Pi, for which Ang Lee won his second Oscar for directing (following his 2005 win for Brokeback Mountain), is a visual feast of a film, relying heavily on incredible CGI to help create this masterpiece of imagination and adventure. After Pi (Suraj Sharma) is caught in a storm while crossing the ocean with his family’s zoo, he ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, with whom he embarks on a fantastical survival story. That’s pretty much the story of Life of Pi: how a boy and a tiger survive together on the open ocean. But the experience of Life of Pi is how this simple tale becomes a visual extravaganza, courtesy of Lee’s adventurous filmmaking, that fantastic CGI team, and Claudio Miranda’s gorgeous cinematography. It is a feast for the senses, a ballet of special effects against a canvas of sky and water, a dreamlike kaleidoscope of nature and fantasy. But nature isn’t always pretty and there is a lot of suffering in this film, as there would be. But trust Lee to never wallow in it, instead he revels in nature’s beauty and amazing capacity for transformation, inspiration and connection. This movie is so rich with interpretive possibilities—the definition of a parable, which it is—but the part that is undeniable is the outsized and emotionally riveting cinematic achievement that it is.

Equally emotionally riveting is Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, a movie less reliant on CGI (although Zemeckis, a CGI pro, does make good use of it), and much more dependent on the audience’s emotional attachment to its main character. I’ve always felt this was Tom Hanks’s most under-appreciated role, despite his Oscar nomination for Best Actor, as Chuck Noland, a man stuck on a desert island for four years after a plane crash before finally finding a way to save himself by venturing out into the ocean, seeking rescue. This movie is mostly remembered for Hanks-ian moments like “I…have made FIRE!” or “Wilson!!” but this film is such a simmering study in fortitude, I can never not watch it whenever I’m flipping through the channels and find it on (which happens a lot). It’s a true testament to the filmmaking and to Hanks’s performance that this seemingly quiet, simple and un-mainstream film would have made so much money and continues to be a staple on afternoon television. There’s just something about this one guy’s relatability, craftiness and ingenuity that gets you. For me, it’s the moments post-rescue that stand out: Chuck’s bewilderment at the things we take for granted, like ice and electricity, his response when he is told they had a funeral for him, coffin and everything, and he responds, “what was IN it?” But it is a combination of this quiet (literally) and committed performance with the undeniably cinematic achievement that it is, from the stunning plane crash sequence to the exquisitely-done life on the island, to the moments of gripping despair out on the ocean, that make Cast Away a thoroughly cathartic experience.

Life of Pi:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 7
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 6
COVID-era relatability: Being stuck with a tiger king
BONUS points for>: Diversity

Cast Away:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 10
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 8
COVID-era relatability: The ubiquitousness of FedEx
BONUS points for: A Bridesmaids cameo

I AM LEGEND (2007) & WALL-E (2008)

The world that our characters must survive in I Am Legend and WALL-E is not one as simple as Chuck Noland’s island or Pi’s lifeboat. Will Smith’s Robert Neville and animated robot WALL-E (voiced by Ben Burtt) are stranded not in the middle of an ocean, but, instead, in the middle of civilization, long after civilization has destroyed itself. I Am Legend, starring Smith and directed by Francis Lawrence, is a post-apocalyptic action thriller that focuses on Neville’s desperate attempts to save humanity while also trying to survive the destruction it has wrought. As most of life on earth has been destroyed or dangerously mutated by a rampant virus (hitting a LITTLE too close to home), Neville uses his medical and military skills to look for a way to save the world. Yes, it’s very Will Smith, but the dystopian world of this film is well done and this third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, following 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man, is a provoking discourse about mankind’s potential for greatness only being matched by its awesome power to self-destruct (see 2020).

WALL-E, Pixar’s ninth feature-length film and fourth Animated Picture Oscar winner, takes a slightly different tonal approach to its depiction of a solo traveler on a dystopian Earth. WALL-E, our animated robot hero, spends his days alone in a wasteland of earthly refuse, fulfilling his programmed assignment of collecting trash and compacting it into stackable cubes, but he does it with joy. It’s not the first time we’ve seen emotions in a robot, but the artists at Pixar, along with director Andrew Stanton, have created a character who is instantly loveable. And as the story develops, and we see WALL-E fall in love and then travel into space on a journey that might determine mankind’s fate, the larger and heavier themes that are thrown at us are made much more tolerable by the existence of one of Pixar’s most charming characters. But just as the virus references in I Am Legend strike too familiar a cord, the precarious precipice that humanity sits on in WALL-E feels far more believable today than it did when this film first came out twelve years ago, as does mankind’s stupidity. While both films are entertaining fantasies, the real-life lessons they hold are devastatingly real.

I Am Legend:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 4
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 2
COVID-era relatability: a deadly virus
>BONUS points for: making us miss video stores

Isolation scale (out of 10): 5
Degree of difficulty> (out of10): 2
COVID-era relatability: couch potatoes
BONUS points for: predicting way too much that probably will happen

MOON (2009) & THE MARTIAN (2015)

If you think it’s tough feeling isolated here on Earth, imagine what it would be like to be stranded alone on another planet. Or, in the case of first-time director Duncan Jones’s Moon, a celestial object. Longtime fans of actor Sam Rockwell still point to his performance in this film as a high point in a career that now boasts a well-deserved Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor in 2018). His performance in Moon, as Sam Bell, an astronaut who is nearing the end of a three-year solo assignment on the moon, is a master class. Directed by Jones and based on his original story, Moon features Rockwell playing multiple versions of Sam, clones that were created in secret by the corporation as cost-cutting measures. When Sam discovers the company’s deception, he works with his clones to turn the tables and save himself (and himself). The film is a must-see for any fan of space movies, and for anyone who talks to themselves in the mirror.

While Sam is alone on the moon by choice, our hero in The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney, was not planning on being stranded alone on Mars. When his fellow Mars mission crew members take off without him during a storm on the planet which they assume has killed him, Mark finds himself stuck alone as far away as you could possibly imagine. Based on the best-selling book by Andy Weir (screenplay by Drew Goddard) and directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian stars Matt Damon as the ultimate MacGruber-in-space. In a time when parents are desperate for ways to get their kids engaged in learning while stuck at home, this is a movie that makes things like science and math fun. Or at least show how essential they can be. While he waits for his crew to come back to save him (if they can), Mark has to find ways to survive, which include figuring out how to grow food on Mars and how to communicate with a world that thinks he’s dead (the ultimate Zoom challenge). Damon is totally in his wheelhouse as the likeable and brainy hero, and totally deserved the Best Actor Oscar nomination he got for it. The film’s Best Picture nomination was earned as well, as Ridley Scott delivered a perfectly-paced ode to good, old-fashioned ingenuity.

Isolation scale (out of 10): 7
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 4
COVID-era relatability: Talking to yourself
BONUS points for: Cloning Sam Rockwell

The Martian:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 10
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 8
COVID-era relatability: Dependence on a good signal
BONUS points for: Not killing off Sean Bean

DUEL (1971) & THE SHALLOWS (2016)

Four years before Jaws, Steven Spielberg directed his first real feature, a TV movie starring Dennis Weaver. The film, Duel, was a low-budget thriller with a simple premise: a man driving alone through the Mojave Desert is terrorized by an eighteen-wheeler. What might sound like a silly set-up ends up being a gripping, frantic and frightening thriller. Even so young, Spielberg flashes a skill and style that he will go on to show off for the next four decades. A film that lives on as a cult classic, Duel is one of the best examples of how to build tension from seemingly mundane circumstances. The beauty of how the fear manifests itself here is the isolation of the driver and the incomprehension of what’s happening to him. An ordinary guy, driving an ordinary car on an ordinary road on a boring business trip. And Spielberg’s decision to make the truck driver unseen only ratchets up the fear level, turning the truck into a vicious monster, relentless and hungry. Man versus beast has never been done so simply, or so terrifyingly.

Blake Lively has a completely different beast to fend off in The Shallows, a movie that owes its DNA to Mr. Spielberg and Jaws. Lively plays Nancy, an avid surfer/medical student from Texas who, in tribute to her recently-deceased mother, goes to surf at her Mom’s favorite spot in a remote area in Central America. The setup alone is a classic trope from almost every horror movie: pretty girl travels to a remote part of the world and nobody knows where she is. And, of course, she’s all alone. Brilliant. But wait…there’s more. Let’s go into the ocean…ALONE! So you know something bad is going to happen and, of course, it has to be a killer shark (are there any other kind in the movies), one with a really bad attitude and an intense desire for some Nancy meat. Yes, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at some of the early moments when you totally can see what’s coming, but, for some strange reason, the movie remains watchable and rises above its implausibility thanks to Lively’s engaging and smart performance, and, to be honest, director Jaume Collet-Serra’s beautiful and sometimes haunting camerawork. Look, it’s pick your poison here: would you rather be chased by a relentless eighteen-wheeler with a grudge or an angry Great White with an appetite? Either way, these movies are guaranteed to get your heart rate up and make you appreciate traffic and crowded beaches.

Isolation scale (out of 10): 1
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 3
COVID-era relatability: no traffic
BONUS points for: making us believe a Plymouth Reliant could outrun anything

The Shallows:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 8
Degree of difficulty (out of 10): 8
COVID-era relatability: even a remote beach is dangerous
>BONUS points for: the seagull

ADRIFT (2018) & ALL IS LOST (2013)

Part of The Shallows’ terror is in the fact that, for our heroine, safety is so close, and yet she just can’t reach it. The shore is just a few strokes away, but the danger, for her, is lurking in the water. For our isolated protagonists in Adrift and All is Lost however, the water itself is the danger—and they have no coastline to save them. Adrift stars Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin as Tami and Richard, a couple who run into a hurricane while sailing a luxury sailboat from Tahiti to San Diego. Based on a true story and directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the film is exciting and exhausting, as we experience the devastation the hurricane causes and the desperate fight for survival in its aftermath. Richard is seemingly lost at sea, leaving Tami, the much more inexperienced sailor, alone and forced to find a way to stay alive. Woodley’s naturalistic approach suits the role perfectly, and Kormákur’s direction is minimalistic without being melodramatic. The real Tami was out on the ocean for 41 days before being rescued. And I thought being stuck in the house was torture.

If seeing Shailene Woodley alone on the ocean is exciting to you (and it should be), just wait until you see Robert Redford. Yes, director J.C. Chandor is responsible for putting a national treasure in harm’s way, at least on screen. All is Lost is the ultimate man versus sea movie, as Redford plays a sailor alone in the middle of the ocean who has to deal with a string of catastrophes that ultimately cause his boat to sink, forcing him to escape into a lifeboat. All is Lost is 1 hour and 46 minutes of wordless drama, as Chandor puts Redford through the paces, facing storms and accidents, trauma and drama. Redford’s character feels like he is the image we have of Redford himself, a calm, seemingly unflappable guy who faces crises with a steady hand and unwavering nerve. But there’s something broken in this guy, as Chandor uses the isolation, loneliness and desperation to bring a seemingly once-arrogant man to his knees. The ocean has a way of humbling even the strongest of men, and All is Lost is a moving parable of redemption. Let’s hope most of us don’t need to be stranded in the middle of the sea to achieve self-realization.

Isolation scale (out of 10): 9
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 9
COVID-era relatability: working class being put in harm’s way
BONUS points for: a fearless female protagonist

All is Lost:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 9
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 8
COVID-era relatability: over-confidence of the older white guy in the face of danger
BONUS points for: reminding us of the importance of a hand-written note

WILD (2014) & 127 HOURS (2010)

Self-realization is a theme in another of our isolation double-features, 127 Hours and Wild. Another thing these two films have in common is the fact that each protagonist intentionally put themselves into their desperate situations, choosing to engage in high-risk behavior and paying the price for it. For both of our solo adventurers, based on real people, the desire to commune with nature and be alone while doing it is both what feeds their souls and what puts them in peril. For Cheryl in Wild, she sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to literally escape her demons and to somehow ease the pain of having lost her mother to breast cancer. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and starring Reese Witherspoon, Wild is a straightforward, honest, real and oftentimes brutally insightful film about one woman’s search for personal understanding and redemption. Witherspoon, who earned a Best Actress nomination, is fierce and determined, but retains a vulnerability and just enough self-loathing to make the performance relatable and moving. Cheryl’s story is filled in through flashbacks, and we see the close relationship she had with her mother, played by Laura Dern, who herself earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Nick Hornby’s screenplay avoids cheesiness and melodrama, but it is Witherspoon’s towering performance, as Cheryl intentionally pits herself against the toughest nature has to offer, that is impressive and memorable.

James Franco’s Oscar-nominated performance in 127 Hours is equally memorable, but for extremely different reasons. The true story of American outdoor enthusiast Aron Ralston’s really bad misstep while hiking by himself near Moab, Utah, 127 Hours is an intensely intimate portrait of one man in serious trouble. When we first meet Aron, he is eagerly packing a knapsack for one of his usual solo hikes into the vast Canyonlands national park. He sets out alone, but is so exuberant and seemingly confident, it’s clear that he’s done this a million times. He knows the caves and canyons like the back of his hand. But as he jumps from one seemingly innocuous rock to another, they give way beneath his feet and he falls down into a crevice, a giant rock wedging in above him, with his right hand caught, literally, between a rock and a hard place. Director Danny Boyle puts the audience right there with Aron with superb camerawork, sometimes too intimately. From the colorful and bright vast desert above to the tight crevice, not more than four feet wide, we feel just as stuck as Aron does, and just as suddenly. It takes Aron a minute to realize the desperate nature of his situation, but the rest of the film is spent watching Aron try to come up with any way out, and finally, after five days, having to make a decision to take significant action to save his own life.

In a battle against nature, nature will always win, but for Cheryl and Aron, who both chose to wage their own wars, the fight for survival is their salvation.

Isolation scale (out of 10): 7
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 7
COVID-era relatability: everybody thinking camping is easy
BONUS points for: proving Reese’s Oscar was not a fluke

127 Hours:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 9
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 10
COVID-era relatability: Aron wearing a face covering when he runs into two people at the beginning of his hike
BONUS points for: that scenery

GRAVITY (2013) & AD ASTRA (2019)

It’s daunting enough knowing how big our planet is, the thought of a single person getting lost in the depths of the wilderness or out in the middle of an ocean or a desert is crazy enough, but the insanity of scope intensifies immeasurably thinking of a single person alone out in the infinity of space. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Gravity, Sandra Bullock plays an American astronaut literally lost in space, alone, having to find her own way back to Earth after space debris destroys her ship and all her crew. The film won seven Oscars for a reason. It is a technological achievement for a new cinematic age, putting the audience literally in space with Bullock, every tool of movie magic at Cuaron’s disposal used to perfection in this immersive film experience that is gloriously executed. The Oscar-winning cinematography, special effects, direction, editing and score all work together to create a visual cinematic feast that still, at its heart, is about the most basic of human characteristics—panic, fear, desperation, determination, and reflection. You might never look into the void the same way again.

Ad Astra also stars a movie star alone in space, but, this time, it’s not by accident and it’s with a purpose. Brad Pitt is American astronaut Roy McBride, son of H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most celebrated and decorated astronaut in American history. Thirty years after the elder McBride was assumed dead after losing contact with him and his ship during a mission to Neptune, mysterious and dangerous electrical blasts are hitting Earth, seemingly originating from Neptune. Roy is enlisted to be the one to travel to see if he can make contact with his father, who they think is still alive, and convince him to stop sending the signals, or, if he can’t stop him, to kill him. Directed by James Gray, Ad Astra is a ponderous, beautiful and reflective film about fathers and sons, dedication to mission and the coming to terms with our own frailties.

Isolation scale (out of 10): 10
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 10
COVID-era relatability: being forced to listen to your companion’s same stories over and over again
BONUS points for: a smartass George Clooney (which is the best George Clooney)

Ad Astra:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 10
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 5
COVID relatability: “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends.”
BONUS points for: Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland


As we’ve all learned by now, long periods of isolation can be cruel. They can be maddening, debilitating and destructive. Solitary confinement is the one tool prison guards have at their disposal to punish prisoners who otherwise have nothing else to lose. Taking away someone’s connection to the outside world is one of the worst things you can do. So what are we to make of people who choose to isolate themselves? Back before technological advancements replaced them with electricity and automation, one of the most isolated jobs that existed was that of lighthouse keeper. Not only are lighthouses often in remote locations far away from anyone or anything else, but they are often located in rocky, storm-prone locations, with a violent ocean as its neighbor, brutal weather a constant companion. Add being cold, dark and often wet to being alone and a lighthouse is a place only for the strongest of souls—and the most stable of minds.

Which makes Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse such a magnificent achievement. The film is the story of a pair of lighthouse keepers, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who are stationed at a remote New England lighthouse together in the 1890s. Thomas Howard (Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Dafoe) are complete opposites. Howard is young and relatively inexperienced and is assigned to the older, more irascible Wake to learn the ropes. Wake is demanding and set in his ways, however, and the two quickly start to butt heads. In short time, the demands of the job and the personality conflicts start to take their toll on both men, and insanity slowly starts to creep in. Eggers uses black-and-white film to capture the mood and dark tone of this haunting and disturbing piece that boasts two of the best performances in recent memory and some of the best cinematography you will ever see (a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Jarin Blaschke). For anyone who is currently stuck in COVID isolation with someone they may not be very fond of, this movie may make you realize how much worse it COULD be.

On the other hand, The Light Between Oceans is an examination of how life in a lighthouse can affect mental health in much more subtle ways—but still be as destructive. Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a veteran just back from the Great War, who is looking for some peace and solitude, so he volunteers to be assigned as the lighthouse keeper on an island off the western Australian coast. When he meets a woman from the town that maintains the lighthouse and they fall in love, Tom resists her insistence that he take her to the island with him. He is worried about the isolation, but he eventually relents, and he and Isabel, played by Alicia Vikander, get married and move to the island. Their lives are very happy on the island until Isabel suffers two miscarriages, which, on top of the isolation of their world, drives her nearly insane. When a rowboat washes up one day with a dead man and a toddler in it, Isabel convinces Tom, against his better judgement, to not tell anyone, to bury the body and to raise the child as their own. Years later, the identity of the baby’s parents is revealed, and Tom can no longer quiet the guilt and voices in his head that have been screaming for years. His decision to act change both of their lives forever.

Unlike in The Lighthouse, it’s unclear if living in isolation motivated the poor decisions and emotional recklessness of Tom and Isabel, but what is clear is it certainly didn’t help. Living on a rock away from any other human beings eventually will find its way to taking a toll, no matter how much love or good intentions you might bring to it. A good reminder to do what you need to do to stay connected, no matter how hard it may be.

The Lighthouse:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 6
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 4
COVID-era relatability: your roommate getting on your last nerve
BONUS points for: the mermaid

The Light Between Oceans:
Isolation scale (out of 10): 3
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 3
COVID-era relatability: doing pretty much anything to keep your spouse happy
BONUS points for: the obvious chemistry between Fassbender and Vikander, who would later marry after meeting on this film

LOCKE (2013) & BURIED (2010)

And finally, the isolation double feature that truly lives up to the name. Locke and Buried each feature a solitary performance by a movie star stuck in one single, small, enclosed location. One will suck you in with a slow-building tension and the other will trigger even your most casual, unconscious claustrophobia. Either way, these are two of the best examples of phone acting you will ever see.

Locke stars Tom Hardy as a businessman Ivan Locke, driving at night. Throughout the course of this 1 ½ hour movie, written and directed by Steven Knight, we learn all about Ivan’s business and personal crises, all played out through multiple phone conversations as he’s driving. We never leave the car and we never see another soul, but Knight finds a way to create a compellingly fascinating movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It certainly helps that he’s got Tom Hardy doing all the heavy lifting. If you have been frustrated with being unable to see Hardy’s face in most of his recent work, revel in the lack of any mask or face covering here, which helps us to appreciate just how fine an actor he really is. This film harkens back to the days of radio, when a complete story was told without visuals, just with vocal performances. Hardy spends the vast majority of the film on the phone, and we hear the people he’s talking to, who also deliver great performances, including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott. Locke is truly one of the most un-heralded and underrated films of its time. You may be sick of looking at men talking on their cellphones while they are driving, but make an exception for Locke, a truly superb film that deserved so much more attention than it got.

Another film that was overlooked at the time is Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds as an American contractor abducted by Iraqi terrorists and buried alive in a coffin. Made right after The Proposal and just before Green Lantern (and 6 years before Deadpool), it’s clear that Reynolds was still trying to figure out what kind of actor he wanted to be. On paper, I can’t imagine that an agent would see the one-line pitch of “guy stuck in a box, left to die” and would see it as an opportunity to make Reynolds a movie star. Look, I HAD to watch this movie for this piece and even I was dreading it. Why would anyone want to sit through this? How could any actor, trying to get traction in their career, choose this? Well, to be honest, the movie ended up being so much more than I expected. Yes, we know now what a versatile talent Reynolds is, but it’s fascinating to see him here, going all out, unconcerned about his persona or likeability rating. He puts all of his trust in director Rodrigo Cortés and it pays off. Cortés’s filmmaking is edgy and creative, finding ways to film inside a box that are inventive and drive the story. It’s pretty bleak, I can tell you that, but Reynolds is the only actor who could make us endure it and almost even enjoy this movie. His natural affability and ability to mine humor in the darkest of moments relaxes an audience that is on edge from the first moments (which are in complete darkness). But Reynolds also shows his underrated dramatic chops. But, mostly, like Hardy, Reynolds’s co-star is a cell phone, his only way to communicate to the outside world. Like Locke, this character’s story is told through phone calls. While Buried is much more political and has deeper things to say than Locke, it is no less an achievement of a solo actor managing to tell a complete story with just a phone.

So, for those of us who are more reliant on our phones these days than ever before, be happy your lives don’t literally depend on them.

Isolation scale (out of 10): 1
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 1
COVID-era relatability: working remote
BONUS points for: seeing Tom Hardy’s face

Isolation scale (out of 10): 10
Degree of difficulty (out of10): 11
COVID-era relatability: your cellphone as your lifeline
BONUS points for: the voice acting of Stephen Tobolowsky

Originally published on AwardsWatch.com.