One of the more compelling sub-categories of the action-drama genre is the survival movie; films that examine human beings torn from civilization and forced to keep moving forward in dire, extraordinary circumstances.
Such movies are often inherently captivating for their depiction of action and adventure. Still, the concept allows filmmakers to explore interesting philosophical ideas that don’t often arise in typical action movies. Seeing characters go to such extreme lengths to stay alive naturally lends itself to an exploration of what, exactly, they are surviving for.
While many survival films begin with a similar premise—a plane crash, shipwreck, or accident leaves the main character(s) stranded far from civilization—the genre can be quite diverse in plotting and themes. There have been countless survival films made over the years, but here are our favorite fifteen:
Best Survival Movies of All Time
1. 127 Hours
127 Hours is based on the harrowing true story of mountaineer Aron Ralston, whose arm became trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall following a solo climbing accident. The film stars James Franco, and as Ralston was isolated throughout his ordeal, the entire movie is centered around Franco’s critically-lauded performance.
Ralston maintained a video journal to keep his morale up, but attempt after attempt to dislodge the boulder failed. After six days, Ralston’s supplies had run out, and he knew if he were going to live, he’d have to go to extremes.
After watching the film, the real-life Aron Ralston stated that aside from a few details prior to the accident, the movie was “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama.” 127 Hours is one of the best survival movies of modern times and has drawn near-universal acclaim.
2. The Grey
Based on the short story “Ghost Walker,” The Grey recounts the story of several oil workers stranded in Alaska after a plane crash, forced to do battle with a pack of grey wolves. The Grey is one of the most relentlessly bleak films on the list, but it’s not just an action movie; it features deep philosophical themes about humanity, spirituality, and why life is worth living.
Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a marksman working for an Alaskan oil company, works killing grey wolves who threaten drillers. At the beginning of the film, Ottway is contemplating suicide, but when he and the crew crash-land in the middle of wolf territory, they must band together and act to survive.
Each of the crew reacts to their dire circumstances differently, allowing the film to explore the human condition and the way survival instincts manifest. The ambiguous ending is heavy and raw, but not devoid of hope.
3. Life of Pi
Adapted from Yann Martel’s classic book of the same name, Life of Pi tells the story of young Pi Patel, son of zoo owners who winds up alone on a lifeboat with several animals, including an adult Bengal tiger. The novel had been regarded as “unfilmable” due to its wild subject matter and symbolic content, but the adaptation was widely lauded for its technical achievements and faithfulness to the source alike.
Suraj Sharma made his feature film debut as the titular Pi, and he delivers a strong performance, acting as the lone human character throughout much of the film’s second act.
Eventually, only Pi and the tiger remain, and while Pi has several chances to abandon the dangerous beast, he finds that caring for the tiger is helping Pi himself keep going. Eventually, the two learn to live together in peace, and after an arduous ordeal, find themselves back on dry land.
Life of Pi is full of twists and turns and a late revelation that perhaps the story was not exactly how it seemed.
4. The Revenant
The film that finally got Leonardo Dicaprio his Oscar, The Revenant is a hardcore drama that transcends the term “survival movie.” Nonetheless, survival is the centerpiece of the film, and what sets the entire plot in motion.
Dicaprio plays Hugh Glass, a historical trapper whose real-life story of being left for dead by his compatriots after a grizzly bear attack served as the inspiration for the story. After being mauled by a bear and watching his son killed in front of him, Glass is abandoned in a half-dug grave. Forced to perform painful self-surgery to prevent his wounds from killing him, Glass then sets off through the wilderness on a painstaking journey in search of vengeance.
Exploring themes about family, ethnicity, purpose, and the emptiness of revenge, The Revenant is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the past decade, receiving Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, and wins for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography.
5. Cast Away
One of the first titles most people will think of when they think of survival movies is Cast Away. The iconic film stars Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee whose plane crashes in the middle of the Pacific.
Noland is able to activate the plane’s life raft, but the emergency beacon is destroyed. He makes his way to an uninhabited island but is the lone survivor of the crash. Severely injured and discouraged, Noland begins to lose hope. But several packages from the crashed plane wash ashore, which will eventually turn his fortunes.
Noland uses many of the items from the packages to help him survive, but the most important package of all is one that he doesn’t open. The desire to deliver this package helps Noland maintain the will to keep moving forward.
Cast Away is a powerful film with deep themes and a bittersweet denouement once Noland returns to civilization.
6. The Martian
A twist on the survival genre, The Martian is one of two films on the list that aren’t set on Earth. Based on the acclaimed 2011 sci-fi novel by Andy Weir, Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, who gets stranded on Mars after being caught in a storm and presumed dead during an aborted NASA mission in 2035.
Watney realizes his only chance for rescue is to survive for several years until the next mission is able to return to Mars. Relying on ingenuity and his experience as a botanist, Watney is able to augment his food supply, but he still has to make a 2,000-mile journey from the crew’s surface habitat to the landing site for the next Mars mission.
The original novel was lauded for its attention to detail and technical accuracy, paired with accessibility for general-interest readers. The movie, likewise, featured these same traits, leading to critical acclaim.
A moving film filled with equal parts hope and despair, Alive is the true story of the Uruguayan Rugby team plane crash in the Andes in 1972. Starring an ensemble cast led by Ethan Hawke, Alive is a jarring tale of pain, resilience, and the strength of the human will.
Many of the passengers quickly succumb to their injuries or the cold. The survivors follow news of their crash over the radio and are devastated to hear that after nine days, the search has been called off. If they are to survive, they will have to provide their own means of escape by finding a path through the mountains back to civilization.
But first, there is the matter of food. With nothing to hunt or forage in the frozen Andean landscape and supplies already exhausted, the passengers are forced to make an impossible choice: to survive, they must eat the flesh of their deceased comrades.
Alive was guided by one of the real-life survivors, Nando Parrado, and was lauded for its historical accuracy and humanity.
Another historical survival drama, Everest tells the story of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster, in which eight people died in a devastating storm. Two parties strive for the summit—Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Both parties reach the peak, the highest point on Earth. But on the descent, things go sideways. Hall’s party gets delayed, forcing them past the ideal time to return to camp. Meanwhile, Fischer is suffering from high-altitude pulmonary edema. Then, with both parties already in danger, a severe storm hits the mountain.
In the pinnacle of extreme conditions, a diverse group of climbers have to band together if any of them are going to make it off of Everest.
9. The Edge
Survival is typically a very self-serious genre of film, but it isn’t beyond some mild ’90s camp. The Edge is an epic starring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Harold Perrineau, and legendary animal actor Bart the Bear.
Hopkins plays a reading-obsessed billionaire, while Baldwin plays a photographer with an eye on Hopkins’ character’s girlfriend. The men crash land in the Alaskan wilderness and have to survive the elements, a stalking Kodiak bear, and their own treachery.
The Edge is defined by the powerhouse performances of its two leads and the injection of man-vs-man intrigue to what is typically a purely man-vs-nature genre.
10. The Shallows
A riveting tale wherein survival is always in view but just out of reach, The Shallows stars Blake Lively as Nancy Adams, a medical student stranded on an isolated rock just a few hundred yards from shore following a shark attack.
Adams, reeling from the death of her mother, goes surfing alone on a secluded Mexican beach. Noticing the carcass of a humpback whale, Adams decides to explore it, when she’s suddenly attacked by a great white shark. She manages to escape to a large rock above the surface, but her leg is badly wounded and the shark blocks her path back to shore.
Nancy must use every resource available to her—from her jewelry, to her intellect, to a wounded seagull which joins her on the rock—if she’s going to survive.
The Shallows stands out from other shark movies for choosing not to feature much gore, focusing rather on the human drive for survival.
Gravity is a survival story of a first-time astronaut who has to brave a series of catastrophes after debris from a destroyed satellite wreaks havoc on her shuttle and surrounding space stations.
Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space mission, set to perform upgrades on the Hubble Space Telescope. But when her shuttle and Hubble are both destroyed by debris from a satellite, Stone must go to a never-ending sequence of extremes if she hopes to get back to Earth.
While Gravity is often referred to as a sci-fi movie, the film’s own director Alfonso Cuaron sees it as a survival drama, using the overwhelming isolation of space to explore themes of adversity, psychological stress, and persistence.
12. Rescue Dawn
Rescue Dawn is a historical war drama showcasing the real-life escape of American prisoners during the Vietnam War, and their fight to survive in the jungle thereafter.
Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler, a German-born American pilot shot down in Laos and taken to a prison camp, where he meets five other compatriots who have been prisoners there for years. Dengler forms a plan to escape, and over time gets the other prisoners on board. They overwhelm the guards and escape, but at that point the challenges are just beginning.
Fleeing through the jungle, the prisoners separate and now have to deal with the elements, waterfalls, and angry villagers alike. As the escapees start getting picked off one by one, Dengler must rely on his wits and intellect to get the group to safety.
While Rescue Dawn is inspired by historical events and actual people, the historical accuracy is inconsistent. However, the film was lauded for the acting, cinematography, and man-vs-nature themes.
13. Flight of the Phoenix
One of the most conceptually unique films on the list, Flight of the Phoenix begins where many others do: with a plane crash in the wilderness. But where the film goes from there is anything but standard.
Two pilots (Dennis Quaid and Tyrese Gibson) are sent to pick up a crew of an oil rig and transport them from the Gobi desert to Beijing. But the load of cargo makes the plane overweight, and a dust storm disables an engine. The pilots, crew, and a stowaway named Eliot (Giovani Ribisi) crash in an uncharted part of the desert.
The group is under threat of the elements and a group of bandits alike. But Eliot comes up with an outside-the-box solution: he claims to be an aeronautical engineer and believes the group can build a functioning aircraft out of the wreckage of the old plane.
Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of a 1965 film based on a 1964 novel; it’s full of classic action tropes, excitement, and resourcefulness.
Another biographical survival drama based on a real-life figure, Jungle tells the story of Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsburg’s 1981 journey into the Amazon rainforest. Daniel Radcliffe delivers an impressive performance as Ghinsburg who, on a quest for unique experience, becomes lost alone deep in the rainforest.
Ginsburg meets up with several friends in La Paz, Bolivia. There, he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to be friendly with an uncontacted tribe deep in the jungle. Ghinsburg’s friends just want to do more traditional tourist activities, but eventually, he convinces them to go on the journey.
The group does meet the tribe, but on the journey home things go sideways. Ghinsburg gets separated from the group, and without any survival training, he must improvise shelter and forage to stay alive.
While the film does fall into survival cliches at times, the acting and cinematography make Jungle an incredibly tense, gripping experience throughout
15. Lord of the Flies
William Golding’s iconic novel was adapted to film in 1990 to mixed but mostly positive results. The adaptation is largely faithful to the source material.
A group of 24 young military school cadets crash-land on a remote, uninhabited island in the Pacific. While most of the boys make it out of the crash with only minor injuries, the lone adult on the plane, the pilot, is badly wounded and delirious. The children, then, have to come together to decide the best way to survive.
Two of the older boys, Ralph and Jack, vie for leadership of the group. Ralph, who is focused on stability, civilization, and a single-minded effort to maximize their chances of rescue, is elected leader. But as time goes by, Jack grows increasingly erratic and leaves the initial group to start his own faction of “savages.”
Over time, most of the boys defect to Jack’s group, and they decide they no longer want to be rescued. The film explores themes of the tension between civilization and the will to power; between individuality and mob mentality.
The Final Word:
The survival genre is truly unlike any other in film. While the above list features a diverse array of movies, they are all tied together by their exploration of human nature when the comforts of civilization are stripped away.
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