Does “The Revenant” Live Up to the Hype?

The Revenant image from 20th Century Fox

The Revenant is one of those Hollywood films that are “Inspired by True Events… that I read about once in a magazine while waiting in the doctor’s office and I’ve now half-forgotten.” In this case, the true story is that of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper in the 1820s who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions, only to survive and drag his broken body across 200 miles of wilderness to Fort Kiowa and safety.

I had been excited to see this movie from the moment I saw the first trailer. The vast majority of Westerns depict a nostalgic, idealized vision of the Wild West. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, I appreciate the few films that explore what the Wild West was actually like, openly acknowledging that the West was a brutal, dangerous, ugly place full of brutal, dangerous, ugly people. The Revenant clearly was aiming for such a tone.

Then the Golden Globes gave The Revenant three awards: it gave the film’s star, Leonardo DiCaprio, the award for Best Actor in a Drama, then it gave Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel) the award for Best Director, and finally it gave the film itself the award for Best Drama. Now the film has been nominated for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

This all made me wonder: Does The Revenant live up to its hype?

Time and again I’ve seen films that win all kinds of awards, or manage to get a massive box office take, or I hear through word-of-mouth that I just have to see it, that ultimately leave me disappointed. Nothing is worse than being super-excited to see a film only to have it turn out to be terrible. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be terrible; The King’s Speech was a genuinely good film but I found it rather underwhelming for an Oscar-winning “Best Picture”. On the other hand, though, on rare occasion I have sen a film or two that genuinely did live up to the hype – The Avengers and Star Wars: The Force Awakens come to mind. Which type of hyped-up film would The Revenant end up being? I had to find out for myself.

The film opens with Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) on a hunting expedition for a fur-trading company. The expedition is led by Captain Andrew Henry (portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson), and along for the ride are curmudgeon John S. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), naive and inexperienced Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and Glass’s completely fictional son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). When the company is attacked by Arikara Indians, the survivors flee into the woods, where Glass winds up on the receiving end of an angry grizzly’s temper. At first, the rest of the crew tries to save him, but soon they start giving up on him. Left behind and half-buried in a ditch with all of his weapons and most of his survival equipment taken from him, Glass is bound and determined to survive in spite of it all and begins his epic journey over miles of snow-covered perilous terrain.

Let’s break this movie down the only way that you can with Westerns: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Bad pun. Bad, bad pun.

Bad pun. Bad, bad pun.

First of all, let me just say that this film is absolutely stunning to look at. The cinematography really helps to capture the sense of loneliness and isolation Glass would have felt trekking through the forests, mountains, and plains. There are beautiful scenes of nature juxtaposed with ugly scenes of mud, dirt, and blood. Gritty is an overused word in Hollywood these days, but I can think of no better term to describe this film’s look. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) really knows his stuff.

I can see why DiCaprio is being praised for his acting in this movie. He really deserves it here. What a performance he puts on, as he makes Glass’s pain, both physical and emotional, feel very real and genuine. Of course, whoever was working in the make-up department really helped with that as well. You forget that you are watching a movie as you see DiCaprio’s face and body get more and more beat up and ragged.

I admit to being a fan of hardcore survival stuff. I grew up reading Gary Paulsen and Jean Craighead George, and I love Les Stroud’s Survivorman show on TV. The Revenant is right up my alley, as much of the film is showing the many creative and surprising ways our hero manages to jury-rig what he needs to survive. I thoroughly enjoyed these moments in the film.

Having said all of that, the film has some inescapable flaws that one simply can’t avoid. For starters, it seems Iñárritu just can’t help throwing in some artsy, dream-like, bizarre sequences that I guess are supposed to be… dreams? Hallucinations? I’m not quite sure, but they were very distracting. I’m fine with filmmakers sometimes wanting to be artsy if it adds to the overall film, but in this case it seemed like it didn’t belong. The story this film tells is as harsh, brutal, and real as it gets, and so these artsy sequences clash with the rest of the movie in both style and content. I could maybe stand one or two to give the sense that Glass’s mind was suffering from what he was going through, but when the interruptions became near-constant it got annoying.

The second major flaw is the pacing. It just feels like this film goes on and on and on. I’ve seen plenty of movies that were longer but didn’t feel long at all, because they kept your interest throughout. This film feels its length, as you watch long stretches of basically nothing happening. I feel this film could easily have been cut down to a more manageable length.

The Revenant image from Premiere

Lastly, the ugly: the CGI. Goodness gracious, that CGI. I get why the filmmakers might not have wanted an actual bear to bite, claw at, and climb on top of Leonardo DiCaprio, but my word is the computer-animated bear absolutely hideous. Can you say “uncanny valley effect”? It’s realistic enough that it almost looks like a grizzly, but something about it just seems… off.

Not only that, but almost all of the animals in this film (apart from the horses) were computer-animated, and it clearly shows. All of these animals have the same issue; they just don’t look that realistic. You can tell they are fake, and it breaks the illusion of the film. Just like the dream/hallucination sequences, it clashes with the grim, gritty realism of the rest of the movie.

Is The Revenant a good movie? Absolutely. It’s a solid film overall, and if you like hardcore realism, wilderness survival, or Leonardo DiCaprio, this film is clearly a must-see. However, that wasn’t the question I was asking with this review. I wanted to know if this movie lives up to its hype, and quite frankly, it does not. Sorry, Oscars and Golden Globes, but I think this time you may have gotten it a bit wrong. In my book, this film only earns a 7 out of 10.