Hurricane Sandy off coast of Cuba and Florida/AP Graphicsbank
by Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - The environment wasn't much of an issue during the presidential campaign, but it remains a hot-button matter for Hollywood.
Man vs. Nature is as alluring a case as ever for studios, which have turned recent natural disasters into cautionary tales for audiences - and Oscar voters.
"We like to think we can control life, control the world," says Juan Antonio Bayona, director of The Impossible (opening in select cities Dec. 21), the true story of a family caught in the middle of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which claimed more than 225,000 lives.
"The amazing thing about nature is it can reveal human nature," Bayona says.
Mankind and Mother Earth have been squaring off regularly this year:
- Beasts of the Southern Wild, the low-budget story of a 6-year-old girl facing rising floodwaters, did a healthy $11 million this summer, and analysts consider it a likely contender for a best-picture Oscar. Read the USA TODAY Review
- Life of Pi, the adaptation of the novel about a young man trapped at sea with a Bengal tiger following a storm-induced shipwreck, also is expected to pick up an Academy Award nomination for best picture and has done a solid $49.4 million since its release Nov. 21. It has yet to drop from the top five. Read the USA TODAY Review
- Promised Land(out Jan. 4) stars Matt Damon as a sales agent for a natural gas company who has to come to terms with the damage his firm inflicts on a small town.
Television, too, has gotten into the mix. Ken Burns just unveiled The Dust Bowl, his two-part PBS documentary about the dust storms that ravaged the American and Canadian prairies in the 1930s.
Bayona says he decided to make The Impossible, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, after realizing he couldn't get a singular image from the tsunami from his mind.
"We looked through all kinds of news stories and found these great little details of heroism and survival," he says. "But there was one video that was shot that showed a wall of water - there had to be seven or 10 waves, 10 meters high - coming down on a little town in Thailand. I don't care how much we see on TV. When you talk to the victims, you realize how powerful nature is, and how powerless we can be against it."
Claudio Miranda, the cinematographer of Pi and 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which features Hurricane Katrina), says that Hollywood eclipses Washington when it comes to addressing ecological matters because "climate is an ugly issue that there's no easy answer for. In a story, you can use it to express mood, peril, even God. But in public (debate), it seems to get people exasperated."
Katey Rich, executive editor of film site Cinemablend.com, says weather has become a more popular antagonist in the past decade.
"After 9/11, terrorism movies kind of fell out of the mix," she says.
Bayona says Mother Nature will be a stalwart theme at the movies "as long as we look at the news and we're numb to how much families are affected.
"It's important to keep their stories in mind," he says. "These are people who had their worlds turned upside down but still overcame tragedies. There may have been a loss of innocence, but there's real heroism, too."
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