Let’s look at two films that use symbols as characters to explore existentialist themes. It Comes at Night approaches self-preservation and tribalism via the forest and the house, while Sunshine looks at self-preservation devolving into annihilation using the Sun in its physical and conceptual forms.
Sunshine (2007) – Dir. Danny Boyle
The Icarus 2 is on a mission to save humankind by delivering a stellar bomb into the dying Sun. As they pass Mercury, the crew discovers the distressed Icarus 1, a ship which disappeared seven years earlier on the same mission. The Icarus 2’s oxygen source is destroyed by accidental exposure to the Sun’s radiation. The crew decides to dock with Icarus 1 to import its oxygen garden. Finding her devoid of its crew, they realise they can take its unused payload to double their chances of jump-starting the sun. An accident and the loss of three crewmembers partially ruins this plan, in that they can’t bring the oxygen garden with them, but do manage to attach the second payload to Icarus 2.
The remaining crew soon realise that the Sun-maddened captain of the Icarus 1 followed them during the perilous return to their ship. He stalks and murders them to impede the success of the mission, insisting that humans on Earth must return to dust and be delivered unto God (the Sun). The two remaining crew deliver the payload to save the Sun and thus the Earth, sacrificing themselves and the insane captain.
The Sun is an ancient thing in human consciousness, representing everything from God and life itself to fierce destruction and renewal. It brings light in its glow and burns in its punishment. In Sunshine, the Sun acts as the goal, the antagonist, and harbinger of Death. We are constantly being reminded of the ship’s proximity to it. Engaging with its intensity can only happen via special protective screens – experiencing it directly causes madness and death.
This “bigness” of the Sun as something so real but abstract lends itself to an interesting amount of detachment in the story. Although this is a very emotional film, the crew of Icarus 2 must maintain a huge amount emotional detachment to keep their mission a priority. They always fall back on their intellect, calculations, and the AI of their ship. This pushes the audience into handling the existential/philosophical panic of their situation for them. The characters don’t have the time to engage with it. We have to endure its glow and its burn, which is why the film can be such a riveting, albeit difficult experience.
Throughout the film, we are constantly getting closer to the sun. It begins as a dot and by the end engulfs the whole screen. This is the slow approach of death, unavoidable and all-encompassing, where life devolves into (necessary) annihilation – to make way for continued life on Earth.
It Comes at Night (2018) – Dir. Trey Edward Shults
Paul, Sarah, their teenage son Travis, and dog Stanley live in a secluded – and very secure – woodland home during a pandemic. Contact with strangers is out of the question, all food is home grown/raised, and any members of the family who die of disease must be burned outside in a pit, deep in the woods. They are faced with the choice to let another family survive with them in the house at the risk of potential infection. The two families safely coexist in the house until one night, Stanley runs out into the woods, presumably to chase after another animal. Unable to chase after him, Travis mourns his dog when it comes inside a few nights later with a mortal wound.
The dark question then becomes clear: how did Stanley get back into the house? Did the other family violate the cardinal rule and leave the main door open at night? Did Paul, the only person with the key, somehow forget to lock it? The mystery of the open door into the night-time woods tangles with Travis’s premonitic visions. All we know is that the virus – with all its physical and emotional tolls – leaves neither family alive.
Forest, House, Dog
In It Comes at Night, Death is also on its slow approach, only this time from within. This is a taut film and any moments of “slack” are still ominous. The primal need of wanting to protect one’s family, maintain the home, and to wander/fear the forest are as old as humanity. It’s easy for us to imagine the situation the characters are in, especially with the current pandemic.
In analytical psychology, the night-time forest is the subconscious realm where the mind can play with all possibility. It is the dreamscape, and traditionally the land of fairy tales, where strange and wonderful things can occur. Most great stories often play with the boundary between the manmade home and the wild, unchartered wood. In the case of this film, the forest is not viewed for its trees – it’s the general, big “outside”, the aggressive nature from which anything can emerge – especially a person infected with the virus. It is a giant bogeyman.
Travis can only engage with the forest through his psychic dreams which border on shaman-like journeying. In dream symbolism, a house is traditionally The Self, and dogs, among many things, are symbols for instinct and innate wildness. Stanley can be seen as an extension of Travis, who darts out into the unknown to hunt and give form to the otherwise nebulous virus. That the dog mysteriously returns to the house with a mortal wound points to the outside and its virus being an invincible thing. It has now gained direct access to the family.
In film as in real life, not everything is what it seems. It’s always good to use symbols in your script to deepen the story, but making those symbols into characters adds a unique layer of complexity. You can learn more at Raindance Screenwriting courses.
It Comes at Night and Sunshine are available on most streaming platforms.