2013’s Prominent Film Themes: Isolated Survival and a Distorted American Dream

By December 20, 2013

Spring Breakers

2013 was a busy year for me. I quit a bunch of writing gigs to become the full time Senior Editor at GeekNation, oversaw a complete overhaul of the site, put together an awesome team of new writers, and spent the last week in Florida preparing for my wedding, which happened last Saturday. Because I was so busy, I didn’t have the time to see quite as many movies as I normally do in a given year, but I still noticed a couple of thematic patterns in the multiplex. The way I see it, there were two main themes that presented themselves over and over again in the mainstream film releases of 2013: a distorted representation of the American Dream, and protagonists struggling to survive against crazy odds (often in isolation).

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers contained probably the most twisted vision of the American Dream this year, with his college-aged female leads taking their cues from video games to rob a restaurant in order to fund their vacation to St. Petersberg, Florida. These girls are under the impression that they deserve an experience like the ones they’ve been consuming in the media for years, and they’ll do anything but work an honest living to attain that high life they’ve put on a pedestal in their minds. James Franco’s instantly iconic character, Alien, adds another level of critique to the proceedings; he’s constantly hyping his material possessions, adorning his room with automatic weapons, and playing Scarface on repeat because that’s what he’s seen in rap videos. This is a complicated film, and while some may say Korine is simply glorifying the behavior of his protagonists, he actually provides a searing critique of not just the attitude of millennials, but the images that have pervaded their lives since childhood.

Pain & Gain

Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain does a similar thing by telling the true story of Daniel Lugo, a working class Miami bodybuilder played by Mark Wahlberg who has a chip on his shoulder and a massive sense of entitlement. He’s spent his whole life sculpting his physique, and his version of the American Dream means that he should also have women, money, and power at his disposal. Like the girls in Spring Breakers, Lugo and his buddies (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) resort to stealing in order to achieve their goals, and for a fleeting moment, it looks like they might get away with it. I didn’t get a chance to catch up with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, but from what I can gather, that film touches on some of the same subject matter.

DiCaprio’s title character in The Great Gatsby – spoiler alert – completely fakes his rags to riches story in order to impress a woman, distorting the most popular conception of the American Dream along the way. Christian Bale’s Russell Baze wants nothing more than to keep his head down, keep his woman happy, keep his family in tow, and work for a living in Out of the Furnace, but that plan is pretty much FUBAR when his brother (Casey Affleck) gets involved with a group of hillbilly drug dealers in a bare knuckle brawl to make some quick cash. Randy Moore’s low budget Escape From Tomorrow, secretly filmed without Disney’s permission in Disney theme parks, qualifies by totally warping the concept of a nice family vacation when the father (Roy Abramsohn) slowly loses his sanity in what is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth.

Even a film as awful as Gangster Squad has a hint of this theme, as Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen believes he’s the rightful heir to the west coast drug crown and is willing to murder, cheat, and steal his way to his own twisted take on the Dream. (Jay-Z actually says the words “American Dream” at the 1:53 mark of the film’s trailer.) And Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tackles the theme in a different way, giving an overlooked worker a chance to live the adventure of a lifetime, stand up to his dickish boss, AND get the girl, something I’m sure many cubicle dwellers in America would consider as dreams of their own.


On the other side of the equation, a handful of films released in October cemented the theme of struggling survivalists as one of the year’s other prominent patterns. Sandra Bullock’s persistent astronaut in Gravity is the most obvious example all year, but Tom Hanks’ weary leader in Captain Phillips, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s enduring captive in 12 Years A Slave, and Robert Redford’s practically silent sailor in All Is Lost join her among the ranks of isolated characters willing to do what it takes to survive in the face of enormous odds.

Though that month featured many of the isolated survivalists, it wasn’t the only time this year when characters were forced to dig deep in order to live through tough circumstances. Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor, Dwayne Johnson in Snitch, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Jason Statham in Homefront, Sharni Vinson in You’re Next, Shia LaBeouf in Charlie Countryman, and Josh Brolin in Oldboy were all essentially left on their own at one point or another to fight their own unique battles and stay alive.

Watching movies allows us to turn a mirror on ourselves and reflect as a society, and the fact that these two themes occurred so often in American cinema this year tells us something about the zeitgeist and our national mindset. I’m not sure if we can tell exactly what these trends mean while we’re still in the thick of it, but if you have thoughts on the matter, please leave them in the comments because I’d be very interested to read them. Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll be able to look back and clearly see why these very disparate filmmakers all latched onto the same two themes in 2013. Until then, we’ll see you at the movies.

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.