“Brave is he who stares death in the eye and makes it blink first.” — Ernest Hemingway. This is a list of films which make you feel a little gladder about being alive (and in one piece). This is a list of films about fictional or inspired accounts emphasizing that “Sometimes, even to live is courageous enough”. This is a list of the best films about survival, about endurance. While the thrill of a man fighting for his mortality isn’t new to cinema, survival is a genre which has certainly come of age recently. Depicting man’s struggle to keep breathing in a wide array of hostile settings, ranging from unrelenting mountains and the Holocaust to even outer space, the films we honour in this list will make your own problems feel tiny in comparison. Here is the list of top survival movies ever. Most of these are wilderness survival movies. You can watch some of these best survival movies on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu.
Disclaimer: We have restricted ourselves to listing films which have ‘Survival’ as the dominant genre. Many other films with survivalist themes, but predominantly belonging to other genres do not find a place here.
10. The Grey (2011)
Survival Against: Ruthless weather in Alaska and more ruthless grey wolves.
A group of oil-men in Alaska survive a plane crash, but that is just the beginning of their troubles, as they find themselves in the midst of the territory of grey wolves, who begin stalking them without mercy. But unlike most survival films, it isn’t just a gore-fest showing a group of victims being killed in gruesome ways. It involves conversations between nuanced characters and a welcome philosophical angle. The thrill only rises as the numbers of survivors thin; only one remains by the end, but does he survive? I’ll leave you to find out. Watch it till the very end of the credits though.
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9. Into the Wild (2007)
Survival Against: Alaskan wilderness (Again, but vastly different)
‘Into the Wild’ chronicles the life and times of Chris McCandless, who relinquishes all his possessions and hitchhikes to Alaska to find salvation in nature, meeting and being influenced by various characters on the way. The film is presented in a nonlinear narrative, cutting back and forth between McCandless’ time spent in the Alaskan wilderness and his two-year travels leading up to his journey to Alaska. The journey of this rebellious, yet affiable boy (played with charm by Emile Hirsch) proves to have a contemplative, deep and lasting impression. You’ll spend more time mulling about ‘Into the Wild’ and how it relates to your own life than watching it. The gorgeous landscapes and music which form the backdrop of this tale are an added bonus. Food for thought, and a lesson or two.
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8. All is Lost (2013)
Survival Against: A tropical storm in the Indian Ocean
From the mountains, to the sea. ‘All is Lost’ is a one-man survival drama starring Robert Redford as an unnamed old man who finds himself alone on a boat with a ripped hull, staring death in the face. He patches the broken hull with a strength that defies his age but then sails into the path of a storm, further elevating his struggle to survive. The film has very few spoken words (naturally!) but that doesn’t stop it from being absolutely compelling. Redford never lets the viewer leave the edge of his seat as he winces, growls, shouts for help or utters the occasional expletive. The film showcases how much one actor can do with a simple idea. The music, sounds of nature and lack of dialogue make ‘All is Lost’ a meditative watch.
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7. The Revenant (2015)
Survival Against: Brutal, barren force of nature in fur-trapping territory (and a grizzly-bear mauling and a murderous co-hunter)
Robert Redford put a committed singular display for ‘All is Lost’, but the dedication put into this Oscar-winning semi-biographical film about the legendary exploits of hunter Hugh Glass is so stratospheric that it could be made into its own survival film. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu made it clear from the beginning that computer-generated imagery would not be used as a stand in for remote locations. He also insisted on shooting in natural light. He said, “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.” The result made up for the hostile conditions faced during the making though. A gripping tale, beautiful imagery by Chivo and commendable acting performances (one of which finally won Leonardo DiCaprio that elusive Oscar) grant ‘The Revenant’ a sure spot on this list.
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6. The Pianist (2002)
Survival Against: The Holocaust
Some survival stories occur against forces more brutal than nature itself – like fellow humans. ‘The Pianist’ is one such story. It is n adaptation of the autobiographical book The Pianist, a World War II memoir by the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, who is forced to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Roman Polanski (who managed to escape from the Kraków Ghetto as a child, and thus experienced the horrors of WWII firsthand) holds nothing back in his depiction of the Holocaust’s extreme atrocities. The camera doesn’t flinch when young children are beaten to death, innocent men and women are gunned down and executed in the streets, piles of dead bodies are set afire and a man in a wheelchair is hurled off a balcony, fatally crashing into the ground below. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s a powerful one.
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5. 127 Hours (2010)
Survival Against: A bone-crushing boulder
One of the most truthful retellings of a true survival story, ‘127 Hours’ tells the story of the life-or-death ordeal of Aaron Ralston after becoming trapped by a boulder in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Ralston spent more than five days trapped with only a small amount of food and water plus a pocketknife and a camcorder, which he utilised first as a journal and later as a last will and testament. Realizing that he was going to die, Ralston knew he had just one option to break free; to amputate his own arm. With a true story like that, I think there was very little scope of fictional dramatisation! And Director Danny Boyle did it faithful justice, even shooting the film at the actual spot of occurrence. The climactic scene actually caused a few people to faint in theatres. That is a hefty testament of the chops of the film I’d say!
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4. Gravity (2013)
Survival Against: Debris flying in space
Perpetual state of mortal danger and how the characters respond to the same makes a survival drama engaging. And Director Alfonso Cuarón is a maestro is evoking the state. In ‘Gravity’, two astronauts (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) attempt to save themselves from a destructive chain reaction of debris in space. This most prominent feature of this film, of course, are its mind-blowing visuals courtesy of Chivo (who began his troika of Osca wins with this film in 2013). But apart from being a ridiculously luxurious visual fest, the film boasts of crisp writing which is poignant at points but never gets too schmaltzy and stellar performances by both the leads, Bullock in particular. A treat for the eyes. A treat for the mind.
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3. Children of Men (2006)
Survival Against: Chaos in a dystopian world.
Another Cuarón film makes the cut, but in this entry the plot is much thicker. It is the year 2027. The human race has become infertile and is nearing its own extinction, leading to a barrage of madness. In these chaos, a Civil servant must protect a lone miraculously pregnant woman and take her to a sanctuary at sea. While narrating the story in a newsreel documentary-style cinematographic angle, ‘Children of Men’ explores the themes of hope and faith in the face of overwhelming futility and despair. Then again, there are epic battle scenes (though the central character never picks up a gun) and riveting car chases to keep the thrill alive. Action as well contemplation in healthy doses.
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2. Life of Pi (2012)
Survival Against: The Sea (And a Bengal tiger)
Rarely do films boast of visuals so stunning, with a story so enriching, as does Ang Lee‘s ‘Life of Pi’. It is is the story of how 16-year old Pi survives a disaster at sea and is hurtled into an epic adventure, while forming an unexpected connection with another survivor – a fearsome Bengal tiger. Also, glimpses at Pi’s life in the beginning which show him to be wise beyond his years make him a more intimate character. With spot-on casting, visuals and 3D effects so good they set a benchmarks for future films and pulsing music for all of Pi and Richard (the tiger)’s encounters, ‘Life of Pi’ is poetically rousing.
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1. Cast Away (2000)
Survival Against: Isolation on a deserted island.
Before 2001, survival was hardly a prominent genre in film. Survival films were sparse and mostly gory. Then ‘Cast Away’ came along. The story of a FedEx agent stranded on an uninhabited island after a plane crash and his efforts to return to civilization, this film marked a definitive turn for the genre. It features Tom Hanks at the height of his powers as he evokes the feeling of being isolated, even talking to a volleyball like a real person. Even the he film’s soundtrack is most notable for its lack of score and creature sound effects (such as bird song or insect sounds) while Chuck is on the island, which reinforces the feeling of loneliness. The iconic status and its effect on future films alone in addition to Hanks’ commendable show gives ‘Cast Away’ the Numero Uno spot on this list.
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