Hurricane Irma’s winds shake the trees in my backyard so violently it sounds like I am sitting next to a waterfall. School is out for two days, and my classmates and I are rejoicing. It does not last for long when we all see the photographs of Florida come rolling in on television, and social media feeds like crashing waves. Roads turned into seas. Trees diagonal from powerful, misty gusts of wind. Stop signs half-submerged in water. All of this coming, of course, just days after Harvey flooded Texas, turning thousands of homes into islands.

Water. We need it to survive, but it can so easily destroy everything we know. In literature and on screen, countless characters have met their ends in water: TITANIC, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, even 13 REASONS WHY. However, many others immerse themselves in water and emerge — gasping for air. But, they are still alive and possibly have found a new strength from within.

WONDER WOMAN

A recent example of this occurred in WONDER WOMAN. Diana Prince has been training her entire life to become a fierce warrior like the women around her. But she lives on an idyllic island that hasn’t been in any real danger for thousands of years and is completely cut off from the rest of the world.

After a hint of her true powers is revealed during a particularly strenuous sword fight against her aunt, she runs to the edge of the island. It is there that she sees pilot Steve Trevor, the first stranger to reach the island, crash into the cerulean water below.

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Diana immediately dives into the ocean to rescue Steve and paddles the pilot to the shore. This is the first time she has used her strength to save someone’s life. This, her first heroic act, marks the turning point of Diana’s character. Steve Trevor will inform the Amazons about the war raging outside their borders, and Diana will finally put her training into use by setting out to end the chaos. She turns from a young woman following the guidance of her aunt and mother into an independent one who goes after what she believes is right and puts her strength into action. She is, in essence, reborn.

Reactions

Largely stemming from the Christian ritual of baptism, countless stories have included characters who go down into water and come back up again to signify their rebirth. There are multiple ways characters react to their second life, reflecting how there are multiple ways for people to react to drastic change or discoveries about themselves. Diana Prince was strengthened by her ability to save a life, encouraging her to save millions more by ending World War I.

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On the other hand, there are characters like Conrad Jarrett from ORDINARY PEOPLE (the 1980 film adapted from the novel). He survived a boating accident, but his older brother, a strong swimmer, did not. Tormented by guilt, he attempts suicide. The film follows him and the family as they try to recover from both of these incidents.

Just as water can sustain people or drown them, water can either energize or enervate characters who find themselves immersed in it and survive. In the end, both paths eventually reveal people’s indomitable strength in the face of change.

GATTACA

A setup similar to the one in ORDINARY PEOPLE occurs in the 1997 sci-fi film GATTACA. Two brothers, both swimmers, head into the water, but only one, the presumably weaker main character, finds the strength to stay afloat.

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GATTACA takes place in a futuristic society where people who were not genetically engineered are discriminated against and are relegated to a lower class. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) was naturally conceived, and as a result, he is barred from his dream: to work his way up the ranks of GATTACA and fly to space.

Being an “invalid” with who is expected to live only 30 years, there is no hope of him even being considered for a non-janitorial position. His younger brother Anton, however, is a designer baby, and qualities such as physical strength and good health have been etched into his genes. Vincent’s parents, like Conrad’s in ORDINARY PEOPLE, clearly show a special affinity and pride towards his more “perfect” brother.

During their childhood, Vincent and Anton played a game they called “Chicken.” Together they would swim in a lake, away from the shore, and the person who gave up first would lose.

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The First Swim

The first time this game occurs on screen, the brothers are children. Before dashing into the water, Vincent, shorter than his younger brother and wearing glasses, grasps a shell. He cuts his thumb with it, hinting at his bravery and willingness to undergo pain. He hands the shell to Anton. His brother looks at it for a moment, and then tosses it to the side, running towards the lake to play Chicken instead.

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Anton does not have the courage Vincent has. He chooses instead to prove his superiority in a way he knows he will be successful in…swimming. Vincent knows that he has a high chance of failing the swimming contest because of his disadvantaged build. However, he does not hesitate to hop into the water and try. This slyly shows that Anton is the real “chicken.”

Vincent inevitably is the first to stop swimming. He does not turn back, he does not sink down under — he lies on his back, floating. Even though he has exhausted himself only to lose, he is still in charge of himself. He has always had the willpower to win — he just has to work for the strength and strategy to match it.

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The Second Swim

The second time they play the game, the brothers appear to be in their late teens. Vincent, determined to fulfill his dream, has been shown reading Careers in Space and telling his parents that he will take the supposed 1 in 100 chance that his heart will not fail. The brothers start swimming. This time, Anton gives up first. Only, instead of floating as Vincent did, he succumbs to the water and slowly sinks underneath.

Vincent rescues him and brings him back to the shore. Through voice-over, Vincent says,

“It was the one moment in our lives that my brother was not as strong as he believed, and I was not as weak. It was the moment that made everything else possible.”

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Although Anton’s genetic traits beat his brother’s, Vincent was stronger. By outlasting his brother, Vincent immediately realized that others’ preconceptions and expectations of him mean nothing. The incident in the water was the first time he transcended the limits society imposed on him. Encouraged, Vincent left home and began climbing the ranks of GATTACA through any means possible.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

In ORDINARY PEOPLE, the incident occurs before the beginning of the movie, but flashbacks and dialogue fill the gap. While Conrad and his brother Buck are sailing one day, a storm comes and topples the boat. Conrad survives by holding onto the boat in the midst of turbulent waters and torrential rains, but Buck lets go and drowns.

Buck was charming, universally loved, and athletic, as shown through shots of filled trophy cases in his room. So why had Conrad, the brother with much weaker swim times, been the one who lived? Conrad, tormented by guilt, is revealed to have attempted suicide and stayed in a hospital for a few months. Rather than seeing his survival as evidence of his strength, he blames himself for Buck’s death. It is as if Conrad still insists that Buck was stronger at that moment. So, he, himself, must be the reason he died.

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Through the characters’ dialogue, it is revealed that Conrad attempted suicide by slitting his wrists in a bathtub, likely filled with water. After he fell into a depression following Buck’s death, he nearly dies in water a second time. This marks the beginning of his journey to healing. He can start to rejoin society, but he, his parents, and the people around him will never see him the in the same way again.

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Over the course of the film, Conrad continues to struggle with the aftermath of his brother’s death. He pushes away his old friends, his relationship with his mother worsens, and his friend from the mental hospital unexpectedly commits suicide. A peak of hope starts to show through towards the end, however. One day he breaks down after his friend’s death takes him back to the trauma of losing his brother. His psychiatrist asks him, “Did it ever occur to you that you might’ve been stronger?”

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Healing

Conrad finally faces the truth about the accident: he cannot blame himself for succeeding. He cannot blame himself for his brother failing. He hung on, but his brother did not. Accepting this, he begins to mend his relationship with a girl he likes and attempts to connect to his mother. When his father tells him that he “should’ve gotten a handle on it, somehow,” regarding his suicidal thoughts, Conrad tells him that it was not his fault.

“It was just luck,” his father says to the psychiatrist about catching and saving Conrad from suicide. It is not really because of luck that Conrad has been given a second chance at life as well as the inability to lose it. He has always had the strength to move on. It just took more encouragement and inner healing than Vincent needed in this situation.

WONDER WOMAN, GATTACA, and ORDINARY PEOPLE show that maybe water does not exactly equate to “rebirth.” Maybe it just creates circumstances that reveal what these characters – and ourselves – have had within themselves all along: resilience, spirit, and strength.

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