I recently watched the movie Into the Wild and while I thought it was a good movie, in as much as it was well made and interesting, I think that the director intended for the audience to feel sympathetically toward the main character. I felt something more along the lines of contempt.
The movie is based on the real life of Christopher McCandless (There is a book by the same name that I have yet to read, but plan to). After graduating from Emory University and being accepted to Harvard Law, Chris decides to give away all his savings and possessions and live the life of a child of nature/tramp a la Henry Thoreau and Jack Kerouac. The movie follows him hiking across the country, hitching rides when he can and living a carefree life, using his new moniker “Alexander Supertramp”. Although he seems to enjoy his new freedom, no matter where he goes he cannot fully escape the trappings of civilization. And so, at some point, he makes the fateful decision that Alaska is the best place to be closest to nature away from it all. The rest of the movie mostly shows his struggle to survive the Alaskan winter with only a .22 rifle, a field guide on edible plants and a large Zip-Lock bag full of rice while living in a van (bus) down by the river. The movie is narrated by his sister, and in the rest of the film the scenes switch between him in Alaska and his family wondering what the hell has become of him.
And this brings me to the main problem I have with this guy. Now I’ll admit that I am your typical middle-class, protestant American. I believe in the American dream. I believe in contributing to society. And I’m not really one to embrace any type of “alternate lifestyle”. Having said that, if you want to give up everything you own and go get back to nature, that’s your business and more power to you; as long as you don’t become a burden to the rest of us (like the guys that climb the mountain, only to risk the lives of the rescue teams that have to come cart their asses down). But if you’re going to do that, tell the people that love you what you’re doing. McCandless had just graduated and in the last conversation he had with his parents he discussed wanting to go to Harvard law. So for the rest of his life, his parents are trying to find out what happened to him. They even go so far as to hire a private investigator. Even his sister, who claims to understand why he did what he did, was surprised that he didn’t let her know what was going on. Now, to be fair, the movie did reveal that the McCandless family was not exactly the Cleaver family and, it would be safe to say, pretty dysfunctional. But that’s really no excuse. If you want to go off the grid, great; but don’t be so selfish as to make the people who care about you waste their time, emotion, effort and money worrying about what happened to you or trying to find you.
My other problem with McCandless is that he is the typical affluent kid that gets all starry eyed from reading the Beatniks, Thoreau, Kerouac and Tolstoy only taken to the extreme. Although I guess this could actually be a pretty good cautionary tale for that type, much like the old PSA commercials. I can see it now: Black screen – “This is your brain”. Cut to the graduation scene. Fade to Black – “This is your brain on Thoreau”. Cut to McCandless emaciated and starving to death in an old bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Fade to black.
I read an article about McCandless and some other people that met their untimely demise in Alaska. I wish I could find the article so that I could give you the direct quote because this guy said it better than I can, but I’ll paraphrase. These guys go up there to commune with nature as if nature was an entity that we can connect with and can share our love and respect for it. What they find out is that nature is harsh, deadly, is totally indifferent to our presence and doesn’t need our reverence but demands our respect.
P.S. The soundtrack is great and features Eddie Vedder doing various acoustic stuff he wrote for the movie. Excellent.