For those who love the genre, “The Mountain Between Us” promised to be another stressful but compelling movie about humans trapped in the hellish nightmare of the wild. The movie’s initial marketing framed it as a survival narrative, complete with people stranded in a deserted landscape, makeshift tools from limited resources and the obsessive hunt for food and water. Rather than sticking to the archetype of the genre, “The Mountain Between Us” veered painfully into the nonexistent niche of cheesy romantic dramas set in extreme climates.
A plane crash on a snowy mountaintop forces two strangers, Alex (Kate Winslet, “Collateral Beauty”) and Ben (Idris Elba, “The Dark Tower”), to rely on each other to survive the elements and trek back to civilization. The film begins as a classic survival narrative; the two are stranded in the remote wild, Ben crafts a makeshift splint for Alex’s broken leg, and the pair overcome cougar attacks, frigid temperatures, mountain crags and frozen lakes to eventually make it back to society.
The beginning of “A Mountain Between Us” aligns with the subgenre of survival narratives called the “Stranded Story.” Films of this subgenre are characterized by a critical moment that leaves the protagonist stranded in nature, with little hope of rescue, that forces the him or her (in this case both) to interact with the environment in innovative ways to survive. Winslet and Elba’s hopeless situation recalls the similar plight of Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” James Franco in “127 Hours” and Suraj Sharma in “Life of Pi.” While set in drastically different environments, these three films are almost parallel in their story arc; the narrative chronology involves a critical disaster, potential rescue efforts, coming to terms with the situation and surviving among the elements.
Each main character is left completely isolated for an extended period of time, and he must use the resources at their disposal to fulfill the human need for food, water and shelter. The jarring back and forth between relative control and complete desperation elicits a sense of clawing anxiety for both the character and the audience. In order to deal with his isolation, each man creates a physical manifestation of himself to serve as a human placeholder. Hanks creates Wilson, Sharma imagines Richard Parker and Franco talks to himself through a video camera. These objects provide comfort and work as springboards for strategy sessions. While the audience knows Wilson is just a volleyball, they also accept the fact that Wilson’s presence is the only thing that gives Hanks the will to survive.
“The Mountain Between Us” doesn’t feature a snowman companion because it doesn’t have to. Alex and Ben have each other to discuss plans and talk about life. In fact, they tend to talk more about the past than about the situation at hand. Instead of concentrating on their struggle against the elements, the film hones in on their burgeoning romantic love. The film transitions from a focus on the environment to a focus on each character’s relationship with the other; the stakes of being stranded in the mountains takes a back seat to Alex and Ben getting to know each other through inappropriately casual conversations.
Survival narratives don’t necessarily involve a life-or-death struggle against the elements. The “Hero’s Journey,” the other subgenre of survival narratives, involves a willing journey into nature for self-discovery and rebirth. Emile Hirsch journeys into the Alaskan brush in “Into the Wild,” Reese Witherspoon hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in “Wild,” and Mia Wasikowska explores the Australian desert in “Tracks.” Nature in these films provides an escape from the trappings of society and a space in which the protagonist can reflect on the past.
The hero’s interaction with people along the way, and how they influence his or her mental journey, is also a major theme of this subgenre. Wasikowska relies on camel farmers and aboriginal guides for her trek across the Australian desert, but the journey is largely for herself. The wild is also romanticized, but nature can be unforgiving. Hirsch revels in his Alaskan paradise, but dies from eating a poisonous plant hauntingly similar to its harmless look-a-like. These survival narratives, again, focus on the environment’s influence on the human body and psyche.
While Alex and Ben don’t purposefully isolate themselves in the snow, their environment provides a space for them to reflect on their marriages and their happiness. Eventually the tundra becomes a backdrop for a getting-to-know-you process and a dramatic reveal of predictable trauma.
The romance between Alex and Ben comes out of nowhere and develops rapidly. For some reason, Alex has an obsessive need to rifle through Ben’s things and listen to his private voicemails. This invasion of privacy doesn’t annoy Ben, but rather leads directly into a gratuitous and unnecessary sex scene. Even more frustratingly, the trite gender dynamics render Alex as a fragile, crippled woman who needs constant and miraculous saving by a man. Ben even goes so far as to bring Alex out of a hypothermic coma with a makeshift syringe made from random scraps.
“The Mountain Between Us” doesn’t illustrate the hero’s journey because we don’t understand who the hero is. Because the film begins with the crash, we have no attachment to the characters and no understanding of who they are beyond the pieces they tell each other (which mostly consists of Alex asking “who are you?” and Ben looking sullen). The film is unable to create a meaningful relationship between the two because it’s almost impossible for the audience to become invested in characters they don’t understand.
Survival narratives are successful for their deeply internal exploration into the psyche of the single character and how it is altered by the physical environment around him or her. “The Mountain Between Us” fails as a survival film because of its focus on the multiple over the singular. With two characters, the focus shifts from the dynamic between humans and nature to only the dynamic between humans. The cliché romantic subplot seems drastically out of place in the frozen and unsentimental tundra. Alex and Ben’s relationship proves that a romance cannot operate within the genre of a survival narrative; a romance necessitates two characters while a survival narrative requires a single character – thus, the two contradict each other.