As 2019 came to a close there were a lot of jokes going around about how we were going to collectively make the 2020s resemble the Roaring Twenties one century ago. There would be flapper outfits! Cocktails! Dancing!
Flashforward a few months, and it turns out that the only trend we’re borrowing from 1920 is pandemic and the corresponding quarantine. Well, fascism is on the rise once again, but that’s a whole different article.
For now we’re here to talk about one of the primary impacts of COVID-19: isolation. To put it delicately, we’ve all been spending a lot more time at home lately. To put it more directly, we’ve all been boxed up for a good long while now, and even the best of us are starting to crack up.
A few weeks from now, it is not unlikely that we’ll all be living in some nightmarish crossover of Mad Max, Contagion, and Idiocracy—if we aren’t already—but in the meantime we all still have more time than usual to watch movies, some of which offer copious insight into the isolated condition.
Jaws: Every Man Is An Island
Consistent to the films discussed here is the use of layers. Isolation in itself is not all that daunting—at least not cinematically speaking—but when that isolation is applied in layers the impact is amplified. Perhaps no movie expresses this point as effectively as Jaws.
Since it was released in 1975, the themes in Jaws have been analyzed ad infinitum, and they’ve even been applied to our present pandemic predicament. Look at the mayor of the film’s fictional setting, Amity Island, whose refusal to take the threat lurking off the coast seriously in favor of propping up the local economy results in unnecessary loss of life. Familiar, right? It’s a thematic question of public good vs. capitalistic enterprise, which is all too relevant to our off-screen reality—a parallel that has already been pointed out repeatedly.
But I’ve never seen anyone unpack the motif of isolation, which is nearly as essential to the story as the shark. Just look at how director Steven Spielberg layered it on.
It’s a thematic question of public good vs. capitalistic enterprise, which is all too relevant
At the beginning of Jaws we meet Chief Brody, who has moved from decidedly un-sequestrated New York City to the secluded island of Amity. The second half of the film places the three shark hunters Brody, Hooper, and Quint on a smaller, even more isolated island in the form of a fishing boat—the Orca. And as we watch them interact we come to understand that each of these men is an island unto himself, with his own history, motivations, and fears. Then finally, Brody finds himself isolated atop the mast of the sinking ship, facing off alone against the shark.
All of this is a very linear progression into further and further isolation, but even beyond this direct path we see the theme expressed repeatedly. When the first girl to be eaten is swimming alone. When Hooper is diving in a shipwreck and is frightened to the point of folly by the appearance of a dead body. When the leaders of the island reject Brody’s call for action, saying distinctly that he’s an outsider among their in-group, that he’s “not an islander.” When Hooper is again alone in a shark cage, and is nearly eaten.
This repeated, increasingly narrowed sense of isolation is a meticulously crafted attempt to make us feel small and alone in the face of a large, often invisible enemy. What makes humans feel more insignificant and alone than the ocean?
You’re gonna need a bigger boat indeed.
The Shining and Doctor Sleep: Isolated Among Others
In 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining scared the bejeebus out of everybody when it portrayed Jack Torrance’s slide into madness.
It’s no secret that isolation is integral to this one. The opening credits roll over a long shot of the Torrance family driving into the wilderness, then the entire plot is theoretically based around the idea that the father, Jack, is driven over the edge by an overdose of solitude, helped along by a malignantly supernatural push for good measure.
But again we find layers to the isolation, layers that become even more apparent with the addition of the 2019 sequel Doctor Sleep.
Perhaps the most frightening thing of all isn’t being alone, but rather being among the group but unseen
Jack Torrance wasn’t alone in The Shining. He was isolated in the Overlook Hotel with his family, but if you pay attention you’ll notice that each member of the family spends the majority of their time away from the others. Jack is usually writing (or trying to write). Wendy is typically engaged in some sort of domestic task, all by her lonesome. All the while young Danny is tooling around the hotel on his Big Wheel, often running into trouble with ghosts.
And speaking of Danny, he’s isolated by his unique gift—his power to “shine”—and even when he’s joined by the one person who can understand that gift, Dick Hallorann, he’s quickly plunged even further into his shining solitude when his magical mentor is killed off upon arrival.
This concept of isolation within a group is expanded upon in Doctor Sleep. Here we see Danny Torrance as an adult, drifting as a tortured and lonely alcoholic on the fringe of society, stalked by vampiric beings who live in an insular sect hidden within (but beyond the sight of) that same society.
In other words, these films are suggesting that perhaps the most frightening thing of all isn’t being alone, but rather being among the group but unseen.
The Thing: Isolated Even From One’s Self
Finally we come to John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is set in perhaps the most isolated place on Earth—Antarctica.
In addition to their geographic isolation, the film’s protagonists experience this theme in manifold ways. They’re isolated by the weather when a winter storm cuts off radio contact. When the Norwegians arrive in pursuit of the alien-infected dog, they’re isolated linguistically—if only they could have exchanged a few words with that Norwegian, so much disaster could have been averted. Then once the creature begins infecting and impersonating them one at a time, they become isolated from one another by their inability to recognize who is a thing and who isn’t.
But most interesting in this case is the concept of isolation from one’s own identity. In The Thing it’s heavily implied that a person doesn’t necessarily know they’ve been infected until said infection is exposed and the alien within must defend itself. In other words, the characters in the film are isolated from themselves—exiles within their own bodies.
As each of these great films illustrates, isolation in itself isn’t frightening—it’s layer upon layer of isolation that builds up to something truly fearsome.
But the antidote, according to them all, is connection and community.
In Jaws, it isn’t until the community and then the three leads come together that the circumstances can be turned against the shark. In The Shining, the monsters and terrible spirits get their power from solitude, and they creep into their victim’s souls when they catch them alone. And in The Thing, self-preservation and isolation prove to be catastrophic, and it’s only by functioning as a collective that the characters have any chance of not only saving themselves, but potentially the entire world.
It is all too easy to dismiss movies such as these as mere entertainments, but the relevance of their themes—and their wisdom—has never been so pressing.