Against All Odds: 12 Cinematic Tales of Survival Under Extreme Physical Conditions
It was while watching J.C. Chandor‘s All Is Lost last year that I began to realize just how much I enjoy films that share a common theme: A small group of people (or, almost preferably, one individual) struggling to survive in the face of certain death. These “survival” movies, as I tend to refer to them now, aren’t part of a specifically defined “genre”, but rather arise from the broader genres of “Adventure” and even “Horror” films. As such, they aren’t filterable on Flickchart, but I’ve gone through my personal chart and selected my favorites that fit my criteria.
All of these movies feature people left with very little more than their wits to combat a harsh environment that is more likely than not to kill them at every turn. I eliminated some of my favorite movies – like Jurassic Park, Alien, Pitch Black or The Mist – that feature a similar vibe, yet contain very explicit “monster” elements. These are just movies about surviving in a harsh environment, and not necessarily escaping some scary creature.
Unlike most of our Top Ten lists on the blog, this is my personal list, and not based on the global Flickchart. Here they are, in ascending order on my chart:
The Grey (2012)
“Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day.”
- The Survivors: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney and others
- The Director: Joe Carnahan
- My Current Rank: #355/1536 (77%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #2323
Liam Neeson vs. a pack of wolves was enough to sell me on this one. But The Grey is more than that, and not just the straight-up action movie it was erroneously marketed as in the trailers. From the epic plane crash sequence, these rough oil men are put to the ultimate test when they must not only find a way to survive in the harsh Alaskan winter, but escape from a bloodthirsty pack of wolves that has picked up their scent. There is action, from a director who knows action (Joe Carnahan of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team), but the movie is taut and tense and more thoughtful than you might anticipate. Well worth a look if you passed it up a few years ago.
“Okay then, what is the worst way to die?”
- The Survivors: Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, and Kevin Zegers
- The Director: Adam Green
- My Current Rank: #331/1536 (78%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #5893
Let it go.
Or, in this case, don’t. Because there’s ice and snow, but this is that other Frozen movie, the one that was made four years before Disney made that title unusable for any other movie ever. The one that features three young people trapped on an immobile ski lift dozens of feet above the ground.
The scariest thing about Frozen is just how matter-of-factly our three heroes wind up in jeopardy. How easily it seems anybody could find themselves trapped in a similar situation. And with an entire weekend ahead with the ski lift being closed, how do these people find their way to the ground and off the mountain? Especially when a pack of wolves starts closing in? (Yes, more snow, more wolves, but Frozen has little else in common with The Grey.)
Writer/director Adam Green (Hatchet) shot this film practically, with his three leads actually dangling from a terrifying-looking ski lift in Utah. No wonder their performances are so convincing.
Rescue Dawn (2007)
“Empty what is full. Fill what is empty. Scratch what itches.”
- The Survivors: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies
- The Director: Werner Herzog
- My Current Rank: #256/1536 (83%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #2084
Christian Bale has a reputation for doing anything to his body that a role requires. Werner Herzog has a reputation for putting actors into tough situations. Both men (as well as co-stars Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) emaciated themselves for this depiction of the true-life tale of POW Dieter Dengler (Bale). Rescue Dawn chronicles Dengler’s capture and subsequent escape after being shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War.
Somehow, knowing a story like this is based on true events makes it seem all the more harrowing, and the commitment by all the actors to their roles helps sell the authenticity. Alas, Herzog’s film was later criticized for assassinating the character of one of Dengler’s fellow prisoners, to help make Dengler himself seem even more heroic. For good or ill, licenses get taken with films, and this is an intense one that I need to revisit sometime soon.
Cast Away (2000)
“We live and we die by time. And we must not commit the sin of turning our back on time.”
- The Survivor: Tom Hanks
- The Director: Robert Zemeckis
- My Current Rank: #243/1536 (84%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #614
Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball (“Wilson!”) is a moment that has been oft-parodied, but it’s not just any actor who can take a script like this and run with it without any other actors to play off of. And Hanks makes the plight of FedEx employee Chuck Noland – trapped alone on a tiny island after a plane crash – truly believable.
(SPOILERS ahead for this 16-year-old movie.)
If there is any major criticism of Cast Away to be had, it is that the film is perhaps a bit too long, with too much time spent with Noland after he actually manages to return to civilization. Yet, that is part of the point. For the title refers not just to Noland’s plight, but how he finds himself with no one to return to when he gets home, cast away as though dead years ago.
“It’s over, isn’t it?”
- The Survivor: Ryan Reynolds
- The Director: Rodrigo Cortés
- My Current Rank: #231/1536 (85%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #2472
Speaking of actors carrying an entire movie on their shoulders, with Buried, Ryan Reynolds not only has no other actors to play off of, but also no set with which to interact. And he’s riveting.
Yes, Buried requires some suspension of disbelief: His cell phone works underground? It’s a shallow grave, okay? When you get down to it, though, this is the way of all movies, and Reynolds – an actor I’ve often thought underrated – turns in an absolute tour de force here. Watching him trapped in a box for an hour and a half tapped into my latent claustrophobia and had me gasping for breath. What a terrifying ride.
The Martian (2015)
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you. Everything’s going to go south, and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work.”
- The Survivor: Matt Damon
- The Director: Ridley Scott
- My Current Rank: #191/1536 (88%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #365
Technically, Mark Watney’s predicament is easily the most daunting. Not only is he trapped in an environment that can literally kill him within seconds, he’s trapped there, alone, for a year and a half. The sheer length of Watney’s ordeal is the one thing I think doesn’t translate well from Andy Weir’s novel to Ridley Scott’s film; it’s hard to make the passage of time feel long enough during the course of a two-hour film. Nonetheless, that minor quibble aside, I think Scott made the best adaptation of the book that could have been made, and Matt Damon absolutely embodies Watney’s spunk and drive – an attitude that is more important than anything for keeping him alive, alone in the harsh wasteland of Mars.
READ MORE: Mark Watney takes on Ridley Scott’s original classic in Reel Rumbles: The Martian vs. Alien
All Is Lost (2013)
“I fought till the end. I’m not sure what that is worth, but know that I did.”
- The Survivor: Robert Redford
- The Director: J.C. Chandor
- My Current Rank: #186/1536 (88%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #2760
There’s one actor in this cast. There’s an opening narration, and then basically zero dialogue. How is All Is Lost so riveting? Because that one actor is the one and only Robert Redford, and he turns in a performance so amazingly nuanced that I can’t believe he wasn’t Oscar-nominated for it.
J.C. Chandor had previously made the interesting ensemble film Margin Call, which relies on an awful lot of dialogue. All Is Lost could not be a more dissimilar film, but he directs the hell out of this tale of “Our Man” (Redford) lost at sea for days after his sailboat is thrashed in a brutal storm. Redford’s every look completely sells the moments when Our Man vacillates from steely determination to utter despair when everything seems so very, very hopeless.
The Edge (1997)
“We’re all put to the test…but it never comes in the form or at the point we would prefer, does it?”
- The Survivors: Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, and Harold Perrineau
- The Director: Lee Tamahori
- My Current Rank: #75/1536 (95%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #2467
This film predates director Lee Tamahori dropping the James Bond ball with Die Another Day. Here, he’s working with crackling David Mamet dialogue and Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin at the top of their game. Hopkins is Charles Morse, a millionaire whose trophy wife (Elle Macpherson) is the model for a shoot being conducted by photographer Robert Green (Baldwin) in the wilds of Alaska. Morse may have the money, but he’s pretty sure Green is fooling around with his wife behind his back. When the men go down in a small plane crash in the middle of nowhere, they’re forced to work together if they hope to survive…especially when a bloodthirsty grizzly bear picks up their trail.
For me, the joy of The Edge is watching two fine actors play off each other in the midst of gorgeous Alaskan scenery, backed by a rousing Jerry Goldsmith score. The film also raises interesting questions about what men are willing to do to survive…and to get – or keep – what they want.
The Abyss (1989)
“When you’re hanging on by your fingernails, you can’t go waving your arms around.”
- The Survivors: Ed Harris, Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn and others
- The Director: James Cameron
- My Current Rank: #74/1536 (95%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #647
James Cameron is nothing if not ambitious. And demanding. And the shoot for The Abyss was nothing if not grueling for its cast. True to Cameron’s go-big-or-go-home aesthetic, the film’s entire underwater rig was submerged in a massive tank to preserve authenticity. Talk about a soggy shoot.
Cameron has a knack for making things seem believable, even when they’re totally out of left field (breathing liquid, anyone?). To top it all off, he even introduces cinema’s first completely computer-generated 3D “character” in the form of a seemingly sentient water tentacle.
The Abyss is a stunning tale of mankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life, far below the ocean. As one calamity after another befalls the crew of Bud Brigman’s deep sea drilling rig, Cameron ratchets up the tension. For some reason, this is not one of Cameron’s most widely heralded films. But it’s easily one of his best.
“I know, we’re all going to die. Everybody knows that. But I’m going to die today. Funny, that…you know, to KNOW. But the thing is, is that I’m still scared.”
- The Survivors: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
- The Director: Alfonso Cuarón
- My Current Rank: #52/1536 (97%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #630
If most films can be likened to prose, Gravity is like visual poetry. In many ways, it could have worked just as well as a silent film, but there’s a very basic human story at its center, anchored by Sandra Bullock’s career-best performance: that drive, that need to survive, no matter the odds. It’s easy to see why the Academy awarded Alfonso Cuarón the Oscar for directing this technical marvel in his signature long, sweeping shots. Yet he doesn’t quite get enough credit for his script, which details a story that is very simple, but startlingly well told despite sparse dialogue.
And let me also say: This is the only film I’ve ever seen in 3D where I would actively choose to repeat the experience. I was glued to my seat in that theater.
READ MORE: Two of my favorite films from this list head-to-head in Reel Rumbles: Gravity vs. Life of Pi
Life of Pi (2012)
“I suppose, in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
- The Survivor: Suraj Sharma
- The Director: Ang Lee
- My Current Rank: #35/1536 (98%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #920
The true soul of Life of Pi (a technical marvel of a film that won Ang Lee a Best Director Oscar for, doubtlessly, many of the same reasons Gravity won it for Cuarón) is not its spectacular, award-winning visual effects. It’s not even the arduous tale of the title character’s will to not only survive shipwrecked at sea, but to do so with a Bengal tiger in the lifeboat.
The true measure of Life of Pi is what you take away from it. The film leaves the veracity of Pi’s extraordinary tale in doubt, but whether you believe that he found God on his odyssey or not, there’s no doubt he arrives at his destination a changed man. And whether or not you buy into his tall tale of a boy and his tiger at sea, or the agonizing yet more believable story he relates later just might say as much about you as it does about the film.
Apollo 13 (1995)
“We just lost the moon.”
- The Survivors: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon
- The Director: Ron Howard
- My Current Rank: #7/1536 (100%)
- Flickchart Global Rank: #352
For me, Apollo 13 is the ultimate ride when one talks about man’s ability to survive extreme circumstances. I left the theater in 1995 on a high, cheering NASA astronauts like Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) as my heroes. And every time I’ve seen the movie since, it never fails to entertain. Yes, it has that “true story” angle to boost its credibility, and its ability to tug at the heartstrings as it runs the gamut of human emotion, from fear to joy, loss to reunion. Yet this film is just one of my favorite examples of what great acting and filmmaking are all about.