The much-anticipated Gravity opens this weekend, and in the minds of critics, it has already been nominated for 17 Oscars. It looks both terrifying and terrific, and I cannot wait to sh*t my pants. There is nothing harder for me to watch onscreen than the plight of hopeless characters who have little or no control over their fates. What’s also interesting about Gravity is that there are only two onscreen characters (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), and while you’d think that movies in which most of the action involves either two people talking to one another or one monologuing with himself for an hour and a half would be boring, some of the very best movies of this century have featured minimalist casts. I didn’t realize it until I was putting the list together, but films with minimalist casts also frequently involve doomed characters, and it can be a powerful combination, as the list below can attest:
Moon — The mind-blowing debut of Duncan Jones, Moon essentially features only one actor (Sam Rockwell), and an Artificial Intelligence companion (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Like in Gravity, we eventually find out it is hopeless for the lead character(s), though to say anymore would be to spoil one of the best sci-fi films of the century.
Open Water — Terrifying in much the same way that I expect Gravity wil be: Because of the sense of hopelessness. The two main characters (who make up almost all of the screen time) are stuck in the water, basically waiting to die in one of the worst manners possible: By being eaten to death by sharks. It’s a completely doomed scenario and, like Gravity, it plays on our fears of having no control.
Paranormal Activity — There were only four characters in this movie, and two of them barely had any screen time. Similar to Gravity and Open Water, Paranormal Activity proves itself, in the end, to be another movie about doomed characters. There are no exorcisms. No stakes in the heart, or silver bullets. Leaving the house would do them no good, because the spirits follow the people. All they can do is wait until the paranormal activity has its way with them.
Cast Away — The first two acts — arguably, the best two acts of the film — center around one man, Chuck Noland, deserted on an island by himself. The only conversation that Noland has are those with himself, and despite that, Cast Away garnered Tom Hanks an Oscar nomination, and includes the most devastating sequence of all time between a man and a volley ball.
127 Hours — Much like Cast Away, 127 Hours centers around one man, trapped in a cave, and for more than an hour and a half, we watch him struggle to free himself until he’s forced to cut off his own arm. James Franco was also nominated for an Oscar for the brilliant way in which he managed to engage an audience in his solitary effort to survive.
I Am Legend — There are scores of extras in the end, but the majority of I Am Legend is about one guy (and his dog) struggling to survive a vampire holocaust. Will Smith is fantastic in this, and if it weren’t for the cop-out Hollywood ending, it would’ve gone down as one of the better post-apocalyptic films in recent memory.
Buried — All of Buried is centered on one man (Ryan Reynolds), buried underground, trapped inside a coffin. He has a cigarette lighter and a phone, and all he wants to do is escape, but he has no idea where he is. Sorely under appreciated and under watched, Buried is a masterpiece of claustrophobia and doom.
Timecrimes — One of the smartest, most engrossing time travel films you will ever see, Timecrimes has a very small cast of five, but only one of which has extended screen time. Trying to explain what this mindfuck is about will break your brain.
Hard Candy — Sandra Oh has a small role in this, but it’s largely a psychological argument (that includes extended scenes of torture) between two people, one a teenager, and another, a 32-year-old photographer that she believes is a pedophile. It’s grueling, tense, and economical, and so well done there are moments in which we actaully sympathize with the pedophile.