I recently watched the critically acclaimed movie “Up in the Air.” When it was over and I had time to ruminate about it, I wondered what the point of the movie was. What was the author trying to say about human existence? If you haven’t seen it and plan to, you want to stop reading now. I hope you’ll return following your viewing of it. In this article I will discuss what I found to be the meaning of it film and some of the pivotal moments I believe support my interpretation.
A little while into the movie, George Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham) meets the young apprentice (played by Anna Kendrick, character Natalie). While she is challenging his lifestyle of superficial relationships, one of her challenges is “do you want to die alone?” Ryan replies after some other discussion, “make no mistake, we all die alone.” This is a telling piece of dialogue, as it seems to resonate with the existential theme of the movie.
Ryan’s firm is hired when a company needs people fired, and they don’t want to do it themselves. Ryan is one of the best at feigning concern and trying to make the transition more palatable for the terminated employee. He does this by creating an artificial and brief bond. He describes his job as something like ushering lost souls out of the darkness so they can see the light of hope, then pushing them out of the boat and making them swim.
Ryan leads a solitary life by any standards. He is on the road (or in the air) most days of the year. His absence from the family is evident when his sister has her boyfriend’s uncle giving her away at the wedding rather than him. Ryan avoids family phone calls despite his approaching sisters wedding. He is single and has no significant romantic relationship, although you can decide if he develops one during the movie. He has no friends identified during the length of the film. He also gives lectures called “What’s in your Backpack” during which he advocates “carrying” as little as possible. He describes human relationships as the heaviest possession anyone carries. His belief system advocates being free from relational and possession “baggage”.
If you have seen the film the above statements are all obvious. No interpretation is needed. Now I’d like to look a little deeper into the movie. First, every relationship in the movie is a failed one, with the exception of his sister whose wedding is taking place in the movie. He has another sister who is separated from her husband. His young apprentice gave up a lucrative job in San Francisco to follow her boyfriend to Omaha, and he dumped her via text message. The woman who shows potential as a love interest for Ryan is married. In essence there isn’t one successful long-term relationship portrayed in film. This seems to indicate that the movie realizes that relationships are transitory, a lot like the movie’s main character.
But I do not believe this is the point of the movie. It is my contention that the point of the movie is that although many relationships end and many others are artificial, that these relationships still make life better. Beyond this theme I believe another is that everyone seeks a sense of belonging.
There are two pivotal moments in the movie that support my contention about the first theme. The first is when Ryan speaks to his sister’s fiancé when he gets cold feet the day of the wedding. The groom asks Ryan what the point of life is. Ryan, after stumbling for words a bit, says there is no point. Time is going to pass, you are going to grow old, and you will die. But then he beckons him, “think about the happiest days in your life. Were you alone?” As the conversation develops it becomes obvious the best times in the groom’s life were with others. There is no mention of who he was with, and no evidence this is important. Simply the fact he was with others makes life better.
A second pivotal moment is when Ryan has his big opportunity in speaking about “What is in Your Backpack”. Most of his lectures are small time, with only a few attendees. He gets invited to speak in Las Vegas, and comes out to a big room packed with people. He begins his spiel but seems to realize he’s not feeling the same and decides not to continue the lecture. He leaves before getting too far into his presentation to visit the woman he’s feeling some attachment to. This doesn’t go well. Yet you get the idea that this is important to the theme of the movie: although he won’t be settling down with her, the temporary connection, or simply the interaction, is what made life better for that time.
The event in the movie that leads me to believe that a second theme is a sense of belonging is that Ryan, even in all of his self proclaimed healthy isolation, wants to belong. The people at the airline check-in welcome him by name because of his status with them. His goal is to attain enough miles to be a member in a more elite club than those who have walked on the moon; those that have attained 10,000,000 miles, is further evidence of this. He eventually becomes number seven in this club. Perhaps it is his disconnection from most common forms of relationship that makes him want to be accepted in one so elite. Regardless of the motivation, he wants to belong somewhere.
As a final argument to my contention about the meaning of the movie I ask the reader to reflect on the internet firings that are the impetus behind the plot of the movie. The character Natalie is a wunderkind. She develops a way to save the company millions. Rather than flying all over the country, these specialists can simply use an internet hook-up which allows face to face (via computer) interaction to do their firing. Think about this a minute. A person who you do not know and have never seen at the company is already firing you. Now, it is being done via the internet. What was your first reaction to this when you watched the movie (or read it here)? Mine was absolutely negative. What I find important about this is that by feeling the internet firing is so outrageous, I am buying into the fact that a brief and feigned bond is better than the seemingly colder experience of an internet firing. This is also evident in Natalie’s boyfriend breaking up with her via text message. The theme is consistent in this film. Some things are better in person, even if they still are difficult and horrendously unpleasant.
Although I was not as enthralled with the movie as many of the critics I heard or read, I do believe it makes an excellent point: human connection, even through brief and artificial bonds, make life more enjoyable (or tolerable, depending on your perspective). Additionally, even when relationships don’t last forever, as I’ve discussed many times in prior articles, they are still essential to life and beneficial to the growth process. I have two questions for those that saw the movie: At the end of the movie Ryan stands in front of a board with flights and destinations. Was he going back to work as usual, or taking his young apprentice’s advice and cashing in some miles to go somewhere else in the world? If he was going back to work, did he return to his speech about the backpack? I’d love to hear your interpretation and comments.