First impressions are important for people, sure, but they might be even more important for things that can’t defend themselves or explain why they spilled two entire bottles of red wine on your new white leather couch. These things might be something like a movie or a video game wherein your attention must be grabbed immediately or you are likely to be lost forever. In person, social constructs limit you to at least some interaction, but with films and games, you can easily leave with a clear conscience five seconds into an encounter.
Aside from Up and its wholly depressing opening (one that is made all the more impactful precisely because of Carl’s passive lifestyle, one where he’s such a nonfactor that it makes their love story seem fantastical and thus more tragic by the end), The Terminal is a film that I feel could consist entirely of its first 10 or so minutes and still remain a viable movie. The Terminal, for those of you who haven’t seen it, stars Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski, a Krakozhian national who gets stuck in JFK International Airport due to a revolution in his home country forcing US Customs to not allow Viktor to neither enter the United States nor go back home to Krakozhia. All he has is a single suitcase, a Planters peanuts can, and rough understanding of the English language. There’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, too, but she comes in later.
The opening sequence, though, is what matters here. In the introduction to the movie, Viktor arrives at JFK only to discover his passport is no longer valid. Confused, he soon learns from passing television news broadcasts that this is because his home country is thoroughly engulfed in a revolutionary war. He can’t go home and he can’t enter the US. He is stateless and, more importantly, lost and confused. It seems that he is surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people who do belong here or other countries, people who are on their way home or have a home to go back to. Everyone around him is driven by purpose and backed by a sense of belonging while he is paralyzed through loss of both of those things.
It’s a suffocating feeling of despair that is related to you through Tom Hanks’ superb acting, but also an innate empathetic understanding of what it means to be alone. Standing in the middle of the terminal, Viktor struggles to come to grips with the fact that he is suddenly without reason. More than that, no one is willing or handedly capable of communicating with him. He is alone and lacking the faculty to fix that (other than through his charm and friendly demeanor). The isolation is absolutely smothering in a metaphorical sense but it is also made literal by the fact that he can’t go two feet without bumping into another uncaring human being.
The game that immediately reminded me of the opening to The Terminal was a game that I recommended to you on Friday’s Weekend Play: Cart Life. Cart Life is an indie game that is described by its creator Richard Hofmeier as a retail simulator and is currently nominated for three awards at this year’s IGF Awards including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. While you can choose from multiple characters such as Melanie Emberly, a coffee shop owner trying to prove she can provide for her daughter, and Vinny the bagel vendor, I started out as Andrus Poter. Andrus is a Ukrainian immigrant who has moved to the US in hopes of getting a fresh start as a newspaper stand owner. You’ll be managing both your life and your business in Cart Life and have to do everything from shower to unpack papers to making coffee to sell in the morning.
There is an intrinsic story to Cart Life, but it’s not told through traditional cutscenes and bits of exposition. Instead, it’s all told through the gameplay. How you function as a cart owner is how your character’s life will unfold. But you are dumped into the world as a fresh immigrant with little to nothing to go on. Andrus, in fact, learned English on the boat ride over to the United States, and the fact that you are living his immediately defeating but new life also makes you quickly empathetic to his situation: he’s lost and unknowing with no real purpose or home to speak of.
Owning this cart is not a purpose; it’s a step. What it’s a step towards has yet to be determined, which lends the entire ordeal a meandering sense of desperation. Where he sleeps is not his home; it’s a hotel, and a hotel is not a home. The only things familiar to him are the places and things he’s restricted to through necessity of surviving this new plight. Hell, he doesn’t even know what time it is until he buys a watch.
But even then, he is still alone. He is fighting against despair and apathy. It’s his despair, but it’s the world’s apathy towards him that his struggles marinate themselves in. He can’t readily communicate with others and he has an empty drive to do…something—anything! It’s impossible to pin down because Andrus himself has yet to nail the specifics. It’s just a sense that something must be done because he can’t do much of anything else.
If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been paying attention. This almost too perfectly reflects Viktor’s predicament in The Terminal. And it’s not just the overt stuff like the fact that they’re both foreigners stuck in the US with rudimentary English skills, but it’s about that battle against omnipresent apathy. No one much cares about this little fellow over here because everyone else has things to do. He may not have any especially pressing matters, but they do and that leaves them with little time or patience or energy to deal with unsolicited problems.
Andrus doesn’t know how to open a newspaper cart, he doesn’t know how to acquire inventory, and he doesn’t know how to do much of anything because no one is willing to teach him. Things are there for him, but it’s not given; it has to be taken, just as everything Viktor learns and gains in The Terminal is taken through his ambition to be more than a stateless foreigner. You are both fighting and playing into an expectation to work and wither. Get this guy a paper and show him your business license (hope you remember where you’re licensed to sell). Shuffle on home as your cough develops and is agitated. At the end of the day, you can see how completely broken he is by the way he just helplessly posts against the wall of his shower.
This may seem similar to Far Cry 2, but it’s not. This is vastly different—though still in the same camp—from the oppressive nature of Far Cry 2. That game was about an environment that constantly wanted to overpower you. It gave you nothing because it had nothing to offer; everything had already been looted from its dry, dusty corpse and is now being pointed in your direction as a warning. No, more than a warning: a promise. You were still isolated and left to your own devices, but it was a survival scenario of you against the environment. You are fighting against a tangible threat, whereas in Cart Life you are struggling against a concept of empty interactions and a desolate, night nonexistent personal life. The African savanna has got nothing on the apathy that fills every waking moment of Andrus’ day.
Depending on how you perform in the game, Cart Life may or may not mirror more of Viktor’s time in the airport, but the beginning of both the game and the movie draw the greatest comparisons. Viktor goes from hopeful as he arrives in a new land to completely deconstructed into a walking billboard of the weaknesses of the human condition. Andrus goes from charged fellow fresh off the boat to an immediately broken and lonely man unsure of what he’s doing and what he wants. Both The Terminal and Cart Life have incredibly powerful and meaningful openers. Experience them both. Be lonely for a while. Appreciate when you are not.