Other than being the absolute gold standard for testing just how nice your television actually is, the various documentary series of BBC Earth are also a profoundly humbling affair. Planet Earth, Life, Blue Planet, Human Planet and the like all drive home the majesty and immensity of the planet around us. There’s nothing like a waterfall so tall it evaporates before it hits the ground to really put day to day human concerns in their place.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film The Revenant evokes a similar sense of scale by using breathtaking locations across Canada, the U.S. and Argentina as a backdrop for an extremely personal and human story of revenge.
In any other movie the events of The Revenant and the extreme emotional toll they take on the protagonist would loom larger than life. In The Revenant the human tragedy and drama are dwarfed by the overwhelming power of the natural world.
That isn’t to short change the human element in the film. The performances and writing are poignant and the human struggles and triumphs of it all are never lost against the lavish, naturally-lit surroundings. But they are positively dwarfed by mountains and rivers and bears and buffalo.
This juxtaposition between the human and the natural gives the film a through line of permission. The human narrative that unfolds throughout The Revenant only does so with the permission of nature itself. At every turn the planet showcases its ability to wipe the players in this revenge tale completely off the map. Every breath and step and murder and betrayal in the film takes place not because the men involved have conquered and bested the natural world around them, but because the natural world around them has, in its own dispassionate unfolding, allowed them to take place.
Even the camera is in on this thematic juxtaposition. There are lengthy, beautifully framed shots of trees and snow and water and mountains. It’s a film that understands its own premise, the lens always giving nature its deserved admiration and reverence.
Through its setting, cinematography and scope The Revenant puts the human experience into context. It presents an extremely compelling narrative and allows it to feel insignificant next to the rivers and mountains and trees that long predate and will long outlive any of its characters. By presenting such severe human concerns in such a light it allows the audience, should they so choose, the opportunity to better frame their own more mundane troubles.
And boy oh boy are there a lot of neat trees.