Box Office Spelunker, November 12-14: Swapping Fireballs and Train Wrecks for Low-tech, High-intensity Survival Sagas

Academy Award winner Sean Penn is spotted on set with actress Naomi Watts filming their latest movie
©BAUER-GRIFFIN.COM Academy Award winner Sean Penn is spotted on set with actress Naomi Watts filming their latest movie "Fair Game." NON-EXCLUSIVE April 7, 2009 Job:  90407W3 New York, New York

In these challenging times, survival itself can be an act of dazzling heroism. There is a time and a place for superhuman mastery and prevailing against outlandish obstacles -- a runaway train, for instance -- but this isn't one of them. I don't care if "Unstoppable" is The Decalogue of train wreck movies (which its rotten tomato score indicates it may very well be). The Die-Hard-on-a-locomotive movie is an action chestnut that's become about as stale as day-old popcorn.

Fortunately, an alternative archetype, one which we'll call the survivor-hero, has made a bold showing in a crop of films currently hovering just outside of mainstream wide release. Why trump up outlandish scenarios when real life yields terrifyingly plausible tales of everyday heroes who outwit and outlast the forces -- both human and natural -- conspiring against us?

It's hard to think of a more courageous act of self-preservation than the one James Franco performs in "127 Hours" (Danny Boyle's adaptation of Aron Ralston's Between a Rock and a Hard Place). It took an entirely different kind of mettle (but one no less rare) for former CIA spy Valerie Plame and and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to speak truth to power in Washington and take on the Bush Administration's trumped-up justification for the Iraq War. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play the couple in "Fair Game," based on Plame's memoir, which chronicles the events before, during, and after her secret identity as an undercover agent was revealed in order to penalize her husband for writing an op-ed taking the administration to task.

What's great is that audiences have clearly let their taste for this kind of raw, unadulterated heroism be known. "127 Hours" made an average of $19,000 per theater (the next highest was the weekend's box office leader, "Megamind," at around $7 million). And, in its second week in release, "Fair Game" saw a 53% uptick in its ticket sales. That's quite a contrast to, say, "For Colored Girls" (Tyler Perry's take on Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking prose poem), whose grosses plummeted 66% in its sophomore week.

The last survival tale worth highlighting this week is that of  Bjorn Lomborg, who endured ferocious attacks from the luminaries of the environmental movement after the release of his seminal work of de-hysteria, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Director Ondi Timoner ("We Live in Public") laid bare the book's radical ideas in "Cool It," her documentary about Lomborg's unconventional approach to saving the planet, which opened in very limited release this week. It's definitely required viewing for anyone interested in looking at all sides of an issue Al Gore called the defining issue of our generation.