In 1990 Christopher McCandless graduated with top grades from Emory University. A few days later he gave his life savings of $24,000 to charity and vanished for parts unknown. By April 1992 he had made his way to central Alaska, where he hiked into the wilderness to live by himself. 113 days later he was dead. This outcome is hardly surprising. Alaska is a tough place and has killed many men who were better equipped and prepared than he was.
This movie (by Sean Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer) is obviously not going to be to everyone’s taste, but I’m still glad that I saw it. It’s a fascinating, disturbing and puzzling story. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was obviously pretty smart, yet he did something extremely foolish and died as a result–a graphic illustration of the difference between intelligence and wisdom.
Of course no one will ever really know what was going on the McCandless’ head. The movie shows us the writer’s interpretation. Obviously he had contempt for material civilization, but it is hard to be sure where that originated. He was influenced by writers like Henry David Thoreau, but Thoreau never did anything nearly as foolish. (The cabin at Walden Pond was not so far from civilization as to keep Thoreau from dropping in on friends for dinner.)
The movie suggests that his real motivation lay in his resentment towards his hypocritical parents, who pretended to be an ideal upper middle class couple while fighting viciously in private, and who were not actually legally married. This is a pretty childish motivation, but of course he was pretty young.
Much of the screen time is spent on his early adventures before he reached Alaska, which involve a variety of colorful people. It is easy to imagine that if things had gone differently he might have returned to civilization in a few years, settled down and perhaps become a famous writer.
The movie is filled with beautiful images of central Alaska and the southwestern United States. It manages to convey the fascination that the wilderness holds for McCandless. Yet he doesn’t seem to grasp, until it is too late, that the wilderness is deadly as well as beautiful. When you are by yourself you can’t ever afford to make a mistake, because Nature rarely gives second chances.