Caring about a planet that doesn’t care about us

Another feature film from National Geographic Entertainment opened on Friday, January 21, 2011. It’s called The Way Back.

Inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s novel The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, the film is the tale of a group of political prisoners who escape a Soviet gulag in Siberia in 1940.

Part prison break and part survival epic,” the movie has a 76% approval rating among “all critics” on Rotten Tomatoes (an aggregator of film reviews) — which translates to only a C; audiences gave it a 72%; and “top critics” give the movie a 56% approval rating.

What’s wrong with the film, which had a $30 million production budget and some very big names on the marquee? (Peter Weir directs; Ed Harris & Colin Farrell c0-star.)

Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal offers this:

“How many new ways can you dramatize icy gales, parched deserts, agonizing thirst, shimmering mirages? And how do you step up the pace of a story that’s about people walking?”

In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes:

“[Director Peter] Weir’s self-consciously magisterial visuals — the swooping aerial and crane shots, and harmoniously composed images of tiny figures marching across harsh landscapes — tend to lull and even reassure you when you should be shaken to the core. Each time the camera soars over the men, you sense the civilizing, rational consciousness behind the scenes, carefully managing a natural world that as it downs one traveler after another, should be terrifying.” [emphasis added]

Terrifying? Sure. But the disconnect Ms. Dargis describes shouldn’t come as a surprise: This is a National Geographic production. Magisterial visuals help NGS fulfill our (relatively) new mission “to inspire people to care about the planet” — even though the planet doesn’t give a whit about us.

This lack of reciprocity between people and planet may seem like a minor, even a silly, point. But it’s not. For if the story’s narrative demands (nature is terrifying, hostile, and potentially deadly) don’t mesh with the producer’s aesthetic sensibilities and institutional mission (nature is beautiful, and photogenic, and we should care for it) — well, no wonder we have a C on our hands.

The movie also looks like a major financial disaster:

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Any thoughts, John?

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