Sometimes us humans love nothing more than to sit down and watch a movie about some poor soul who has to fight not a human enemy, but nature itself. There is something equally horrifying and amazing about watching our fragile bodies be put to the absolute limit away from our towns, cities and homesteads. Lots of movies incorporate some element of survival within themselves but it is rare when it is the sole focus, and even rarer when the main enemy is the wilderness and the beasts that live in them. For this list we have tried to pick movies which incorporate minimal build-up and are generally nail biters from the get go. So sit back, have a read and be thankful you’re not the protagonist…
1. The Revenant (2015)
The movie where Leo finally got his Oscar. The Revenant hits hard from the very first scene whereby a group of pelt hunters are ambushed and mostly slaughtered by Native Americans. It does not get much easier from this point onwards, with a noticeable shift from our protagonist fighting other humans to starting to fight nature itself. Leonardo’s character faces off against bears, freezing temperatures, falling off snow capped cliffs and even spends a night inside his horses’ stomach for warmth.
This is one to watch with a blanket, the sheer amount of snow in this Oscar winner will have you shivering. The protagonist simply does not get a break in this movie, every time you think he has gotten over the worst bit of it he will be slammed back down to reality with a snowstorm, hungry animal or blood thirsty human. It is relentless.
Admittedly, this movie does involve more human conflict than we would prefer for this list. But, the impact of nature on this survival epic simply cannot be ignored. As highlighted in Leonardo’s acceptance speech, The Revenant illustrates the very fragile bond between man and nature, respect it and you will survive, treat yourself as higher than it and you will surely perish.
2. The Way Back (2010)
You’ve escaped a Soviet Gulag and are free from Russian soldiers, so what’s the downside? Well, there is now approximately 4,000 miles of forests, deserts and mountains between you and being truly safe. That is the general plot of The Way Back which loosely follows the true story of Skawomir Rawicz, a Polish prisoner of war who escaped a Russian gulag during World War II. Skawomir is joined by seven others who escape alongside him and it can definitely be said that things don’t go exactly to plan.
Once the characters have escaped the gulag it truly is only nature that continues to harass and make their journey difficult. The group is slowly picked off one by one of which not a single character dies through human conflict. They make mistakes, grow through their various character arcs and ultimately the viewer does begin to care for each of them.
Unfortunately, the main downside to this film is it’s lack of truth to the original story. Although the premise is generally correct, the details are either given excessive poetic license or some characters did not even exist. The director in fact now calls this film a work of fiction when looking back on it in hindsight. Regardless, it tells a solid and motivational story of man vs nature.
3. 127 Hours (2010)
In contrast to the previous movie, 127 Hours is harrowingly accurate. Based on the horrifying 127 hours in which adventurer Aron Ralston was trapped in a small slot canyon with his arm pinned by a boulder that had fallen on him. The real Aron was a constant advisor to the movie and said that it was “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary you can get and still be a drama”. The movie got critical and public acclaim, being nominated for six academy awards and being a box office success. James Franco’s performance was exemplary and propelled his career on an even greater trajectory.
It is not an easy watch. The movie delves deep into not only the physical traumas of the accident but also the mental strain it placed on Aron. The most notorious part of the movie is when Aron decides his only chance of survival is to cut his own arm off, of which he only has a small and rather blunt army knife. The movie shows this in full detail, even when he breaks his own bones and cuts through the nerves which made even the most hardcore cinema goer wince.
It is a cautionary tale which has undoubtedly had a profound impact on backpackers and adventurers worldwide. Carry appropriate tools, tell people where you’re going and when you’re expected back and if you’re really going off the grid carry an SOS radio.
4. The Grey (2011)
You will find not a single shred of happiness watching The Grey. That is not to say it is a terrible movie, in fact is is excellent but it is just not very happy or motivational. Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, a sharpshooter hunter who protects the oil workers in Alaska from wolves. Whilst on his way back to Anchorage the plane he has boarded crashes into the Alaskan wilderness where only he and a handful of oil workers survived. They soon realise they have landed in the middle of wolf territory and begin to be picked off one by one by absolutely ginormous Alaskan wolves. Ottway takes charge and tries to lead the men to safety.
You do not get a minutes respite in The Grey. The survivors are constantly on the run and face not only the wolves but the Alaskan wilderness as their enemy. The deaths are cruel, barbaric and ultimately sad as the group of survivors are quite likeable. I won’t ruin the ending for you because it is absolutely outstanding and probably the best out of this list.
Liam Neeson does a tremendous job as always. It is a relatively small cast which holds up well. The wolves never look fake and the CGI and practical effects are clean and realistic.
5. The Impossible (2012)
When a catastrophic tsunami hit Thailand on Boxing Day 2004, countless families were devastated. The Impossible tells the story of one of those families. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of the Bennetts – a British family holidaying for the Christmas period. They are having an idyllic holiday which is ripped away from them in literally seconds when the tsunami hits without warning. Separated and critically injured, the movie follows how each Bennett tries to survive the ensuing devastation.
The Impossible is undisputedly touching and will tug on each and every one of your heart strings. It has been hailed by real survivors of the tsunami as accurate and that it’s emphasis on the local Thai residents helping anyone they could was commendable. It is not hard to imagine the Bennett family as your own, with their horrified reactions and confusion being what you would expect from any family suddenly facing death on Boxing Day. They are not superheroes but they do their absolute best to save their children and themselves.
Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts star in the movie and their performance was excellent with both clearly drawing on their own experiences of parenthood. It is also the now incredibly famous Tom Holland’s first major role in a box office movie – you can see the beginning of what will be a very successful career be displayed in this survival epic.