During these strange times, it may feel tempting to look away and escape from what is happening around us, and while this may be beneficial on occasion, it can sometimes help to just stare straight at it. What you might find is a comforting feeling of catharsis that can only come from confrontation and acceptance, but, more importantly, you will also find some great movies to pass, and possibly even enrich, the time.
Movies about isolation allow for some incredible filmmaking, and requires the small cast of actors (sometimes even just a singular actor) to really dig deep, which in turn often results in a mesmerizing central performance.
The following movies all deal with isolation and separation to varying degrees, and with the current degrees of lockdown and social distancing measures affecting people's lives all across the globe, now is the perfect time to explore how cinema deals with these things. In some cases these silver screen heroes deal with it valiantly, in others they allow it to consume them...both literally and figuratively. Some find themselves marooned, whilst others choose the seclusion. In any case, this is a selection of must-see movies all about isolation that can be viewed whether going it alone or hunkering down with family or friends.
Moon follows an astronaut miner named Sam Bell, played by the criminally underrated Sam Rockwell, who's blue-collar job involves extracting precious moon gas called Helium 3, which promises to reverse the Earth's energy crisis. Sam is nearing the end of his three-year lunar-based contract, which he has served all alone aside from a very technologically basic robot companion, voiced by Kevin Spacey. As Sam's contract nears its end, the lonely astronaut looks forward to returning to his wife and daughter down on Earth, where he plans to retire early and attempt to make up for lost time. But, because this is an ominous science fiction movie, with only two weeks to go before he begins his journey back to Earth, Sam starts feeling strange. He begins having inexplicable visions and hearing impossible sounds, and, when a routine extraction goes horribly awry, Sam makes a discovery that will change everything. Apologies for the somewhat vague description, but the less you know about Moond, the better.
Moon is a compelling piece of modern sci-fi, elevated even higher by Sam Rockwell's extraordinarily layered central performance. The movie tackles loneliness and isolation with a very elegant touch, using the tropes of the genre to make metaphorical self-reflection a lot more literal, and a lot more effective. Sam finds enlightenment in his solitary situation, using it to reflect on the past and overcome some serious issues, and, were this not a sci-fi thriller, being left alone would have certainly changed his life for the better. Moon tackles the idea of self, the complexity of identity, as well as the amoral consequences of greed and commercial endeavor in this stunning debut from director Duncan Jones.
The Thing (1982)
Body horror icon John Carpenter's 1982 remake, The Thing, is now considered a bona fide classic and is one of the best big-screen depictions of isolation, and the problems that can arise when you aren't as alone as you think.
Set in remote Antarctica, a group of American research scientists are disturbed at their isolated base camp by a helicopter shooting at a seemingly innocent sled dog. When they take in the dog, they soon realize it is much more than meets the eye. It brutally attacks both human beings and canines in the camp and the research team quickly discover that the mysterious beast can assume the shape of its victims. A resourceful helicopter pilot, played by a majestically bearded Kurt Russell, and the camp doctor, played by Richard Dysart, lead the camp crew in a desperate, gory battle against the vicious creature before it picks them all off, one by one.The Thing has become well-known mostly for its spectacularly gruesome and inventive use of practical effects, but the movie is also a very effective portrayal of cold, desolate isolation. Trapped within an endless snowy terrain, The Thing is guaranteed to make you feel chilly regardless of the weather outside. Though isolation may suck, at least we don't have to contend with a shape-shifting monster.
This psychological thriller follows a US truck driver named Paul, played by Ryan Reynolds, who, while working in Iraq, is suddenly ambushed and attacked and finds himself buried six feet underground. With no idea why he has been pulled into this terrifyingly claustrophobic situation and armed with just a lighter and a cellphone, Paul must race against time and try to save himself before he runs out of air, or worse.
Even though he does have several conversations with other characters via his cell phone, Buried is very much a one-man show. Focussing solely on Ryan Reynolds' Paul as he lies helpless in the coffin that could end up being his permanent resting place. Reynolds digs deep, utilizing all of the charisma he can muster and proves once and for all that he is more than capable of not only keeping an audience's attention but is able to craft a performance that is both magnetic and complex with only very minimal accessories. The theme of isolation is obvious in Buried, and though it may be frightening, you'll be pleased that Ryan Reynolds is trapped alongside you.
Cast Away (2000)
Cast Away star and America's Dad, Tom Hanks, has been front and center of the headlines over the last several weeks. So, now might be a good time to look back at what he got up to when left all alone. Following a deadly plane crash, Tom Hanks' time-obsessed systems analyst, Chuck Nolan finds himself marooned on a desolate island. With no way to escape and not much hope of rescue, Chuck must use what knowhow he has to find ways to survive in his new home.
Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away remains one of Hanks' best, and boasts one of his most impressive performances, as he spends most of his screen time alone, carrying the movie effortlessly with his natural warmth and charisma. Hanks has always had an 'everyman' aura and it plays perfectly here, grounding the dramatic circumstances in some semblance of reality. Zemeckis even applies clever cinematic trickery, such as removing the score and any creature sound effects from the moment Chuck crash lands on the island, in order to reinforce an overwhelming feeling of solitude.
Though the movie itself may lose some momentum towards the end, you won't regret spending time in isolation Hanks and his volleyball companion, Wilson. If anything, the movie should be commended for Wilson alone, as never before will you have cared so much about an inanimate object.
127 Hours (2010)
A movie that will make you glad you're just stuck at home watching Netflix, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is the ultimate "thank god that's not me" tale, made all the worse when you find out it's based on a true story.
127 Hours follows Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who embarks on a hiking adventure in Utah. His journey is cut short when he finds himself falling into a canyon and becomes trapped, quite literally, between a rock and a hard place. Soon, he is forced to take desperate measures in order to survive and struggles, alone, for 127 hours.
Much like many other movies on this list, 127 Hours exhibits a brilliant central performance, this time from James Franco. With his arm trapped, Franco is not even able to move to keep us entertained, instead opting to lean into his youthful exuberance. Gradually Ralston succumbs to crazed paranoia and mental anguish as the gravity of his situation takes hold, before finally culminating in one of the most bone-chilling, nerve-shredding acts ever committed to cinema.
Make no mistake, 127 Hours will make you appreciate the comfort of home.
The Lighthouse (2019)
A movie that demonstrates to extremes the psychological ramifications that can take hold when living in complete isolation, The Lighthouse is the Phypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers as they try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s. Of course, letting your mind run away with itself is much more likely to happen when you're hanging out with a ludicrously bearded Willem Dafoe and while living in a stark, black and white world.
Lurching from the mind of director Robert Eggers, the man behind the critically acclaimed supernatural horror The Witch, The Lighthouse is an extremely surreal, nightmarish cinematic experience, that conjures so much intense menace that your knuckles will be left as bright white as the light that streams from the titular tower. Held tightly together by a pair of powerhouse performances from Dafoe and co-star Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse is certainly not for the faint of heart. But, beneath the harrowing ordeal that dominates the movie, there is an oddly illuminating black comedy about a very unstable odd couple.
The Martian (2015)
Being alone does not always have to be littered with both physical and psychological monsters. Sometimes it is indeed possible to maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing, as The Martian's marooned astronaut Mark Watney goes to prove.
When astronauts blast off from the planet Mars, they leave behind Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who is presumed dead after a fierce storm. With only a meager amount of supplies, the stranded visitor must utilize his wits and spirit to find a way to survive on the hostile planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, members of NASA and a team of international scientists must work tirelessly to try to bring him home, while his crew mates hatch their own plan for a daring rescue mission. Alongside Matt Damon, The Martian features a hugely impressive ensemble cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, and Benedict Wong.
Throughout The Martian, Watney makes use of a lot of similar technology that we have all had to get used to, such as webcam recordings and remote chatting. Though obviously, Watney is using said tech from a much more remote place than the rest of us. But, despite his dramatic predicament, Watney never disconnects from his funny bone, providing quips and jokes throughout. Not only do they keep the audience entertained, but there's a real sense Watney himself is getting a kick out of it too.
From South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, Oldboy is a violent, offbeat story of punishment and vengeance. Centred on Choi Min-sik's Oh Dae-su, a husband and father whose reputation for womanizing is well known, who suddenly finds himself locked up in a prison cell, with no idea of what his crime was or whom his jailers may be. Released just as suddenly after 15 years living in a single room, Oh Dae-su struggles to unravel the secret of who is responsible for locking him up, what happened to his wife and daughter, and how to best get revenge against his mysterious captors.
Oh Dae-su's time in captivity is overwhelmingly isolating. With only a small television (and no Netflix) as company, Oh Dae-su does not even have the luxury of knowing where he is to comfort him. Busying himself writing and exercising, his mind begins to gradually slip away, leaving him with no choice but to dig himself an escape tunnel with a pair of chopsticks. Thankfully, most of us will never find ourselves so bored, and likely have access to the front door anyway.
Oldboy is a grimy, vicious exploration of revenge and the perpetual consequences of such an obsessive vendetta. Boasting incredible performances, particularly from Choi Min-sik and Yoo Ji-tae, as well as one of the greatest one-shot fight sequences ever committed to celluloid, Oldboy may not be a pleasant watch, but it is an incredibly rewarding one.