There's something so incredibly satisfying about a great, man-vs.-nature film. The best survival movies pare everything down to the most essential elements: There are very few characters, they have just their wits and some limited tools at their disposal, and they only have one objective in mind: stay alive. And yet, with so few ingredients, these movies are still able to get our heart rates up, and give us a twinge of the existential terror that is the vastness of nature. Survival films are a study in how to do the most with the least.
As a species, we are drawn to stories of struggle and the triumph of the human spirit against nigh-unbeatable circumstances. Perhaps we like to see humans succeed in worst-case scenarios or maybe we just like thinking that, in the worst of times, we too could rise to the challenge. Whatever the case, struggle for survival seems to be an ongoing theme across global cultural storytelling.
And while that theme is evident across the centuries, it can also be found in more modern forms of the narrative – namely in film. Look across every decade in which the movie medium has existed and you’ll find a noteworthy example of a survival flick. Of course, if you don’t want to have to sift through hundreds of thousands of them to find the ones most worth watching, you could just consult our following list of the 20 best survival movies. Just keep in mind, when thumbing through our list, that these films are ones in which survival is one of the main overarching themes and not circumstantial or secondary to the primary storyline.
Based on the autobiography of Aron Ralston, titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place, this true story is simultaneously one of the most impressive and hardest to watch, due both to the gruesome nature of the tale and the bittersweetness of its ending. You may have heard the story and know how it turned out, but this movie is still worth the watch for everything you may have missed in-between.
One of the most heart-wrenching tales of misfortune and the drive to survive no matter the cost, Alive tells the true story of Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes mountains in October of 1972. It stars Ethan Hawke; is based on the 1974 book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors; and forces viewers to ask how far they might go to stay alive.
All Is Lost
Perhaps the most impressive part of this lost-at-sea Robert Redford flick, besides the fact that he’s the only cast member, is that there is virtually no dialogue throughout the entirety of the film. Now, for some, that might seem a little too obtuse, but we think it adds a lot of depth to the loneliness and desperation of a man all-alone floating amongst the waves.
Alone in the Wilderness
As proof positive that not all survival stories need to be defined by accidents, disasters, or misfortune, this documentary tells the story of Dick Proenneke. In the 1960s, Proenneke made his way out onto the Aleutian Peninsula in Alaska, built himself a log cabin, and proceeded to live off the land all by himself. The film stretches across his first year out in the woods and features self-shot footage of the whole impressive experience.
Inarguably one of the most commercially-successful and well-reviewed survival films, Cast Away has solidified itself in our collective consciousness – even if just in reference to a Wilson-brand volleyball. In any case, a movie doesn’t have this much staying power without at least a measure of value behind it. This big-screen drama is one of the best and deserves a watch, even if you’ve already seen it.
The ascension of the world’s highest peak is something that has fascinated both adventurers and laymen alike for centuries. There’s just something viscerally appealing about humanity venturing to the most remote and dangerous places in the world, with the hopes of coming out unscathed on the other side of it. Unfortunately, rare are the occasions in which nothing goes wrong – as is the case with Everest. This is a thriller film about the best of intentions coming to a head with the worst of circumstances.
The Flight of the Phoenix
Before you say anything, yes, there was a middling-at-best Dennis Quaid action film that came out in 2004 with a similar name. That movie is a remake of this original (and far-superior) version. What’s perhaps most interesting about this movie is its setting. Whereas there are an abundance of survival stories that take place in the snow, this one is about a similarly barren place – the desert. It also highlights the ingenuity of people in a dire situation.
With rare exception, Liam Neeson seems to have become a bit of a one trick pony over the course of recent years. But, if you aren’t totally burned out on his gruff, no-nonsense, disappointed dad acting style, then The Grey is a movie you should check out – and a diamond in the rough, as far as we are concerned. Yes, Neeson is still smoldering, but the greater story, a tale of a small commuter plane crashing in the middle of wolf territory in the dead of winter, is what’s worth getting excited about. And it all culminates in a very entertaining final sequence.
Into The Wild
When it was released, this Sean Penn-directed Emile Hirsch flick – about a young college graduate giving up his silver-spoon life to hitchhike to Alaska and live in the wilderness – was all the rage with the young, hipster, anti-establishment crowd. But, we think a lot of people forget that this was a true story of a real man that left behind everything and everyone that cared for him. If you saw this one when it came out, give it another watch; this time, without the rose-colored glasses.
Some of the strangest tales actually turn out to be the ones that are true. Take, for instance, Kon-Tiki. This movie follows the story of Thor Heyerdal, a real-life explorer who traversed the Pacific Ocean aboard a balsawood raft in 1947 (along with five other men) – traveling 4,300 miles from South American to Polynesia. What’s even crazier is why he did it: to prove a point that, in pre-Columbian times, native South Americans could’ve made the same trip. If you don’t mind subtitles, this is a beautiful and intriguing film, to say the least.
Life of Pi
Ang Lee has a rather confusing and somewhat sordid directorial history – including films such as Brokeback Mountain, The Hulk, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And while not all of his films are ones we’d back, Life of Pi is certainly a winner. Not only is it visually stunning, but this unique take on the 2001 adventure book of the same name is also heartwarming, action-packed, and definitely worth seeing at least once.
Lord of the Flies
The original printing of the book, Lord of the Flies, hit shelves in 1954. It is still taught in schools all around the world today. It doesn’t hurt that the author, William Golding, is also a Nobel Prize-winning writer. There’s a pretty good chance you’ve read the book already if you grew up in the United States – but this movie is a more easily digested version. And it’s worth watching even if you already read the book.
It’s estimated that a fictional $900 billion has been spent saving Matt Damon’s characters throughout his career. A major chunk of that can be accounted for in The Martian. This is a unique take on the science-fiction genre, is based on a book of the same name, and is truly one of the more light-hearted and fun movies in the entire survival genre. If you like space and beating the odds, you can’t do better than this one.
We don’t have to tell anyone that the Nazis were pretty bad guys. But, back in 1936, that picture wasn’t so clear. In fact, the Nazi party had taken control of Germany and, through a series of propaganda campaigns, had rallied the entire country to their cause. One such campaign called for Germans to ascend the most dangerous rock face in the Alps – in an effort to further bolster faith amongst the German people. Two men answered that call, albeit reluctantly. This is their story.
The story behind 2015’s The Revenant is a little bit confusing. For starters, there was a real man named Hugh Glass that lived in the early 1800s and he was, in fact, mauled by a bear and left for dead, only to crawl back to civilization over perhaps hundreds of miles. The rest of the story, however, is questionable at best. In any case, this movie is an incredibly interesting, albeit long, look at one of the most unlikely survival stories.
Most people don’t know that Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel, The Road, was actually written as a love letter to his son. Whatever the case, the movie version – staring Viggo Mortensen – perfectly captures its hopeless feel, rawness, and dread-beauty. This movie isn’t for the faint of heart and won’t leave you with a feel-good lesson at the end of it all, but it’s definitely got value hidden away elsewhere – if you’re willing to look for it.
Though technically a 2-episode miniseries, this made-for-TV limited special can certainly be watched back-to-back as an extended 4-hour film. And we believe it should, as the real-life story of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton is one of both survival and perseverance. You see, in 1914, Shackleton led an expedition to the Antarctic aboard a ship called Endurance, only to lose the ship after it became frozen in an ice floe. The ensuing true story is captured in this Kenneth Branagh film.
Touching the Void
Back in the 1980s, there was a mountain in Peru, called the Siula Grande, that had never been successfully climbed. In three days, two men made the daunting trip. Getting back down, however, was another story entirely. One that is covered in the film Touching the Void. In a rare example, this movie shows that sometimes achieving something is only the beginning of the story.
The Way Back
The Russian prisons in Siberia, called gulags, are famous for their inescapability. This is because, even if you were to get out, civilization can be thousands of miles away – depending on which direction you head. So when a group of escapees attempted to flee one in 1941, they were expected to perish. Instead, they made a 4,000-mile trip to freedom in India. It’s a grueling and sometimes heartbreaking true story, but it’s worth watching.
Whereas most survival stories are those of accident or disaster, Wild tells a very different one – one of self-imposed exile, so to speak. Another true story, this one follows Cheryl Strayed – a divorcee and substance abuser who decides to leave everything behind and hike the 1,000+ mile Pacific Crest trail… unaided and with no experience. While her choices may be rather questionable in regards to personal safety, this survival story is nonetheless a very powerful one.