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20 Survival Films That Will Take You Into The Abyss

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 17, 2013 at 4:46PM

As a film writer, you could be forgiven for having grossly overused the words “thrilling,” “tense,” “harrowing,” "unflinching," and “visceral” in recent weeks, with “claustrophobic” and “exhausting” also getting a pretty good workout. Alfonso Cuarón’s thrilling, visceral “Gravity,” Paul Greengrass’ tense, harrowing “Captain Phillips,” and now both J.C. Chandor’s claustrophobic, exhausting “All is Lost,” and Steve McQueen’s unflinching, exhausting “12 Years a Slave,” which open this week, will have seen to that. All four films boast a certain storytelling economy and a similar leanness to their approach, which belies just how different they are. But more importantly, all put the viewer through an impressively immediate, often physically grueling, life-or-death experience in which a person, pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds, has to find the resources within themselves to prevail against an implacable enemy: deep space, the cruel sea, slavery, the wrong end of a machine gun brandished by a Somali pirate.
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127 Hours, James Franco

"127 Hours" (2010)
After Danny Boyle made "The Beach," he claimed that was the last movie he would do in the wild. He publicly proclaimed himself a city director and that he should stick to more urban material (which, apparently, includes a movie set on a spaceship). But then he followed up his Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" with "127 Hours," a true-life story of survival that is literally set in a sliver of dusty canyon, where backpacker Aron Ralston (portrayed by an all-time best James Franco) is severely pinned. When we asked him about this, he said that "127 Hours" was about a man trapped in the wild who is stretching back to urbanity; to his sister (Lizzy Caplan) and all the people he left behind. It's this element that gives "127 Hours" its sizzle; it's not just a movie about a guy whose arm is pinned by a boulder, it's a movie about how we all get trapped by things in our lives that keep us from connecting. In the survival movie genre, it doesn't get much more grueling than "127 Hours." The first time we saw the film, at the Hamptons International Film Festival, the middle-aged woman sitting next to us looked like her head was going to melt off her shoulders during the sequence where Ralston has to free his arm the only way he can: by cutting it off using a dull pocket knife. It's not the gore that is the most disturbing, however, it's the thought of having to get to that place, emotionally and physically, when that is the only option. The word "desperation" doesn't quite cover it. Thanks to Boyle's snazzy direction (we love the soda commercial montage), though, it's the rare survival film that you'll actually watch more than once. [A-]

Man in the Wilderness

Man In The Wilderness” (1971)
Mostly forgotten as a movie beyond just a survival action/drama (though "action" is rather relative), 1971's “Man In The Wilderness” is still an interesting footnote in the genre. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian (best known for 1971's "Vanishing Point" which we wrote about recently here), the movie stars Richard Harris as a relentless and tough fur trapper in the 1890s who is left for dead by his Northwest Territory expeditionary group after he is mauled by a bear. The leader (John Huston) knows the quiet man who keeps to himself well (or as much as anyone can), but noting that every man is expendable, the troupe must push on. But the savagery of nature—wolves, Indians, bears, et al.—simply cannot break the will of this one man and not only does the Harris character survive, he endures long enough to catch up with his old friends. Mostly silent and moody, Harris barely says a word throughout the whole film, but the picture has interesting atmospherics thanks to cinematographer Gerry Fisher (Sidney Lumet's "Running On Empty," 1970's "Ned Kelly" starring Mick Jagger) and composer Johnny Harris. Mostly meditative, the movie’s dynamic elements come from flashbacks to Richard Harris’ character as a boy and the members of the expedition wondering if he’ll come back and seek vengeance on them as their consciences begin to gnaw at them. While some could slot this movie into the revenge territory, that would be a bit of a miscategorization as it's never the movie’s focus. And while it bares some resemblance to Richard Harris' “A Man Called Horse” (released the same year), it is not a sequel. While not remotely close to being one for the ages, it’s still a fairly interesting, if uneven entry in the survival cannon for completists of the genre. [B-]

Buried

"Buried" (2010)
Anyone who saw "Green Lantern" probably wanted to trap Ryan Reynolds in a coffin and bury him deep below ground. But those who actually watch "Buried" will probably be surprised by just how good the hunky leading man can be in just that situation. Reynolds plays a truck driver working for an unnamed private contractor in Iraq. His convoy is attacked and he is left alone in a coffin with a Blackberry and a few assorted items. The kidnappers call him on his Blackberry and demand $5 million or he'll be left underneath the sandy earth to die. Unlike most survival movies, the chance that he will actually die seems ever-present: being a handsome movie star doesn't mean shit in "Buried." This is evidenced by the sequence where he imagines his rescuers pulling him out of the ground, which turns out to be a cruel mirage. Unlike many survival films, "Buried" wins points for putting you in a similar psychological state as our hero: what is a darkened movie theater but a light-less tomb? The movie is an effective thriller, cheap and politically pointed, but it does have an agreeably bleak finale that you almost can't believe they got away with. Also: watch out for snakes! [B-]

The Edge

"The Edge" (1997)
It's odd to think that David Mamet, the king of rat-a-tat urban banality, would pen a survival story set in rural Alaska, but that's just what he did with "The Edge," a nifty little thriller that stars Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins and Harold Perrineau (it was directed by perpetually underrated Lee Tamahori). In the movie, Baldwin plays a fashion photographer and Hopkins plays a billionaire with nearly total recall who is also the husband of Baldwin's subject, a comely supermodel (Elle Macpherson). When their male model falls ill, Baldwin, Hopkins and Perrineau (as Baldwin's assistant) go to a remote tract of land to hunt down a sexy and authentic Indian hunter. But on the return journey, their plane crashes (it runs into a flock of geese or something), killing the pilot and stranding the men in the very scary wilderness. What makes everything more intense is that, seconds before the plane crashes, Hopkins asks Baldwin how he's planning on killing him, being convinced Baldwin is having an affair with his wife, which adds an even thicker layer of tension. This is just as much man vs. man as man vs. nature—throw in a killer bear and all bets are off. All of Mamet's themes, about men's relationships with each other (and with women), the power of money, and the necessity of deception are here and accounted for, but they're housed in a wonderful survival-story casing. All of the questions brought up (did Baldwin do it? Does he want to kill Hopkins?) just add to the fun, and the bear gives a wonderful performance, too. (This thing is a beast. Someone called it ' "Jaws" with claws' when it came out, and that's not far off.) Although, with Mamet's insightful script, it's also more: a survival tale where male insecurity is just as deadly as any of the elements. [B]

Cast Away

Cast Away” (2000)
One man, one island, one volleyball … Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Cast Away” strands a familiar face alone on an uninhabited island, and in the throes of survival, he becomes a loincloth-laden, spear-chucking island man. Playing FedEx employee Chuck Noland (apparently FedEx didn’t pay for the product placement), Tom Hanks gained fifty pounds to play pre-island Chuck. For on-the-island Chuck, Hanks lost the weight and grew out his hair and beard for that rugged, ragged, “haven’t eaten something not personally caught in years” look. While stuck on the island and without anyone else for company/companionship/yelling (let alone Gilligan, the Skipper or the rest of “the three hour tour” gang), Chuck adapts to his surroundings—building fires, learning to fish with a spear, making a friend (“Wilson”) out of a Wilson volleyball with a painted-on face. With the key to survival being to never give up hope, Chuck makes the great attempt to venture out at sea on a makeshift raft, and though he loses Wilson along the way, is found by a passing cargo ship. In a revisionist timeline of Hanks’ filmography, wouldn’t it be funny to name that cargo ship captain Richard Phillips? Has someone on the Internet already done that, maybe with an attached conspiracy theory? We call on you, commenters! Well, the weight loss and gain was worth it for Hanks as he was nominated for all of the awards that year, winning the Golden Globe and CFCC Best Actor awards, and his latest film to include rescue and a cargo ship (“Captain Phillips”) may get him a sixth notch on his Oscar nom belt. [B+]


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