Postcard: Los Angeles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 5:24pm

After a summer of superhero action and feel-good animated comedies, Hollywood has turned to forlorn figures with films that explore existential dilemmas faced by isolated characters.

The autumn-winter months are traditionally when film studios release their top dramas to beat the end-of-year Oscars deadline and build buzz heading into the Hollywood awards season. This year, Tinseltown is banking on the socially alienated.

Loners, dreamers, misfits and outcasts show up in films such as Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, Kimberly Peirce's remake of Stephen King's Carrie, and the big-screen adaptation of Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card's 1985 sci-fi tale of young people in warfare.

Walter Mitty, a fictional character from a 1939 short story by James Thurber, defines a person not comfortable in his own skin or surroundings, alienated by idealistic aspirations. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty's star and director Stiller says he feels people will latch onto the protagonist's inability to connect to the world around him. "There was something very accessible and relatable about the idea of a guy who exists more in his head and isn't able to be who he wants to be," he says.

Stiller's Mitty is a Life magazine employee, handling the film negatives of its photo archive and embarking on a fantastical journey to find a missing photograph that would go in the final issue before the publication moves online. "He's an analogue guy in a digital world. That change is something generational. I can relate to that and I feel a lot of people will relate as well," Stiller says.

Mitty's challenge in accepting a changing world is echoed in Spike Jonze's Her, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely writer who develops a relationship with a female-speaking computer system. The film highlights the increasing disconnect as technology brings people together virtually, but segregates them physically.

The social insecurity and alienation also reflect the financial and economic insecurity that occurred in recent years and has worked its way into today's films, says Jack Epps Jnr, screenwriter of Top Gun and Dick Tracy, and a professor at the University of Southern California.

"A lot of these films represent the cubicle man and the repressed individual," Epps says. "That's thematically America pushing against these things, this small person in this global corporate workplace."

Carrie is a classic tale of social isolation and revenge as misfit student Carrie White wreaks havoc at her high school prom after being bullied. "I'm drawn to an alienated character, because if they're alienated, they have a huge need generally to find love and acceptance, to find normality, to find their way back to the human community," says director Peirce.

In Cuaron's Gravity, social isolation is taken to a whole new dimension. Astronaut Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is tumbling alone through the vast expanse of space and forced to come to terms with her withdrawal from life back on earth.

Isolation also defines the leading figures in recent young adult films, including The Hunger Games series that sees Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) fighting opponents in a battle to the death, and Ender's Game, in which teenager Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is selected for his high intelligence level by an army and manipulated into warfare against an alien race.

Butterfield says that making a character an outcast among their peers provides an opportunity for the character to overcome challenges. In Ender's case, he uses his intellect to command a formidable authority over his peers and elders. "One of the reasons why he succeeds in the battle is his ability to be both empathetic and be able to see from the enemy's side, and at the same time, be brutal enough to do what's needed to be done," the actor says.

Carrie's Peirce says bigger audiences are being drawn to stories about isolated leads, and can be connected to the popularity of recent comic-book blockbuster films such as Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder's Man of Steel Superman reboot.

"In most people's lifetimes, they have been the outcast or the marginalised or the alienated … I think we're all constantly in a state of being alienated and wanting to come back into a state of wholeness," she says.