“Man vs nature” is the most difficult type of conflict to portray in movies.
It consists of a human protagonist pitted against a natural element (like an animal, a natural catastrophe, or the destruction of an artificial structure by a natural element).
This type of conflict often goes hand in hand with survival films, stories centered around the struggle of the protagonist to survive in a deadly environment. A typical example of a survival movie with a “man vs nature” type of conflict is The Impossible.
You may think: “That’s not that difficult! You just need to put a human character in danger by dumping him in the middle of a forest full of predators or in a building that is about to be destroyed by an earthquake”. Well… it’s not always so clear cut.
A conflict against nature can either be incredibly compelling and realistic or incredibly weird and surreal, there is no grey area.
You can have either:
A beloved protagonist that engages in a race against time to save himself and others from a volcano that is going to erupt.
Or (in the case of
The “man vs nature” type of conflict can succeed if it follows those two rules:
Doesn’t matter if the story takes place in a jungle in the Amazons, a desert in North Africa, or even in a futuristic city as long as the environment plays a key role.
What image do you think about when someone says the word “nature”? Probably about a field of grass, a river, a tree, a snowy mountain, or any other beautiful landscape that might be saved as a jpeg in the Image folder of a brand new Windows computer.
The environment cannot be just an image in the background, it must have a function. It could either provide an obstacle for the human characters, help them in unexpected ways, or even be the antagonist itself.
In The Impossible, it does all of those things. The tsunami is the inciting incident that separates the family, the water and the wreckage are obstacles in their path but occasionally also provides the family of what they need to survive.
Laws of nature
Imagine this scenario: you are lost in a forest full of dangerous hungry wolves. You’re trying to find a path to go back to the city where you came from. When suddenly, a bush seems to shake and an animal hiding inside it starts growling. What do you do?
- Run away as fast as you can to avoid being eaten.
- Like any good dumb horror movie protagonist ™, you get closer to see if the animal in the bush is aan hungry wolf or a friendly squirrel.
Even if you’ve never seen a wolf up close in real life, you know what growling means, you know what kind of animals use that sound to scare their prey, therefore you know that you’re in danger.
The “laws of nature” I’m referring to are basics of physics, instinct, the things that little kids learn at kindergarten about animals.
Can a man survive a fall from the 30th floor of a skyscraper? No.
Are elephants carnivorous? No.
Can you distract a lion that is chasing a man by throwing a cat toy at it? No.
Unless the story contains supernatural elements, when you’re writing a “man vs nature” type of conflict you cannot “cheat” those fundamental laws that everybody knows.
Because if you do cheat the audience won’t be able to suspend their disbelief, and they’ll end up nitpicking every single plot contrivance from that point on.
To explain what makes this type of conflict good and what makes it bad, let’s take as an example one of the most beloved movies in history Jurassic Park and the sequel that no one asked for Jurassic World.
In this scene, we meet the Indominus Rex for the first time
that guy from Law & Order SVU Dr. Wu who combined the genetic traits of multiple species in order to create the ultimate park attraction.
Sounds cool right?
After a lot of talking about this brand new dinosaur and how smart and she is, we finally get to the part where we can see her in action as she tries to escape her cage.
We immediately understand that she is indeed very smart: she manages to fool a team of guardians with thermographic cameras by using its ability to lower her body temperature, she also thinks about leaving marks on the wall so that the humans will believe that she has escaped.
Wow! She has even thought of leaving false clues. What a clever dinosaur this is!!
It’s a shame that she’s not smart enough to lift the car that is shielding one of her preys.
She may be confused by the smell of gas after Owen hides. But she is literally in front of him when he slides under the car. There’s a pretty strong chance that he was in her field of vision.
Is she really that smart? She can find and eat a guy hiding behind a car, but she cannot find a guy hiding UNDER a car
But maybe I’m wrong, maybe she’s so smart that she thought: “Nah, I like Starlord. I’m gonna leave him alone”.
I’m not writing this just because I want to nitpick every inconsistency in Jurassic World
Because of those inconsistencies, the Indominus Rex seems less like an actual animal and more like an horror movie monster equipped with human intelligence.
This is the most famous scene in the movie: when our protagonists are attacked by the T Rex.
Do you know why so many people say that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park “seem real”?
The striking difference between the I Rex and the T Rex is in the way they behave and interact with their surroundings.
Just like a predator, the T Rex takes its time to look around, smell and try to force its preys out of their hiding places, either by using the screeching sound of her voice or brute force.
We’re told that a T Rex doesn’t attack a person if he/she stays steel and doesn’t make loud noises. Knowing this fact, Grant and the kids use this weakness to their advantage.
“Keep absolutely still, its vision is based on movement”
They manage to fool the creature by trying to make as little noise as possible and ignore its attempts to make them react
These actions would look silly in any other situation. If a is guy pointing a gun at you, you don’t simply use a lighter to make him look elsewhere.
But here, we can easily guess the reasons behind the decision of staying still instead of running or the act of lighting a torch.
We may have never encountered a wild animal, and we certainly never met a T Rex, but the animal’s
I mean, the T Rex does to the Jeep the same thing that my dog does to any box she finds interesting: jump on top and tear it down with her teeth.
As I said before, “Man vs nature” might appear like a straightforward, simple type of conflict but it’s not
As a writer, it’s important that you keep the two essential factors (environment and laws of nature) in mind.
Otherwise, you’ll end up writing a scene where a guy and a hybrid genius dinosaur’s play hide and seek.