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20 Survival Films That Will Take You Into The Abyss

by The Playlist Staff
October 17, 2013 4:46 PM
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"Rescue Dawn" (2006)
Leave it to Christian Bale to outdo his typically intense preparation for a role. Known for dropping and adding to his weight repeatedly for a string of medium-to-low profile roles, he bulked up considerably for his shot at the A-List with “Batman Begins.” True to his horrifying dedication to his craft, however, he immediately followed that blockbuster with this Werner Herzog collaboration, dramatically dropping his weight once again for this narrative retelling of Herzog’s moving doc “Little Dieter Needs To Fly.” The subject of the tale, which also featured in our recent Prison Breaks feature, is a struggle against adversity for Dieter Dengler, the German-American pilot shot down in Vietnam and held as a P.O.W. Herzog, however, turns it into a parable of man versus nature, illustrating instead the harsh physical conditions for Dengler and a group of other survivors similarly struggling with food and health. The cruelty of Dengler’s captors is considerable, but Herzog lingers over the physical and emotional struggles of the group, some of whom, like a long-gone pilot played by Jeremy Davies, begin to break down. Herzog’s film seems, unlike his other work, to be wrestling with the commercial considerations of the story as well as Herzog’s typically intrigued view of the wilderness, and the spectacle and sentimentality of the adventure feels like an ill-conceived marriage with the thoughtful observations on clashing identities—much of Dengler’s past as an assimilated German soldier feels stapled on from a much more introspective picture. But Herzog here crafts a picture that resists the easy uplift of the struggle between different cultures, and in Bale, he has a worthy collaborator: both Bale and Steve Zahn seem wholly dedicated towards allowing their weathered bodies illustrate the flickering of dying, but resolute spirits. [B+]

Lifeboat” (1944)/"Abandon Ship" (1957)
Can you survive being trapped on a boat with brassy dame Tallulah Bankhead? How about being trapped aboard a tiny lifeboat with brassy dame Tallulah Bankhead, a German U-boat captain, a mother and baby, and a guy getting his leg amputated (among others)? This Hitchcock single location film is one of the best examples of what the great auteur could do with his self-imposed limitations and constraints. The film takes place entirely within the confines of a lifeboat after the aforementioned U-boat and Transatlantic ocean liner carrying Bankhead’s newspaper columnist sink each other. This was one of Hitch’s WWII pictures where, using the power of character and storytelling, he exhorted movie-going audiences to all just get along—for the purposes of survival, of course. He strips away all distractions (including score), foregrounding the character interactions, and ultimately demonstrates that the group’s harmony is truly key to its chances. This story of collective survival is in line with his other WWII films, such as “Foreign Correspondent,” where he implores the U.S. to come to Britain’s aid in a radio broadcast coda that he tacked on in the wake of the London Blitz. In “Lifeboat,” coming at the end of the war in 1944, he shows that he was right in his call for collective cooperation. And he scooped up a host of Oscar nominations to boot. [B+]

Also deserving of a related mention here is the 1957 film "Abandon Ship" (aka "Seven Waves Away"). Bafflingly hard to come by now, it stars Tyrone Power in what we recall being a magnificently bleak story about survivors of a sinking ship having to decide who gets thrown overboard in an effort to save the rest. Fearlessly tackling truly life-or-death morality questions, the film is endlessly surprising, right up until the downbeat ending in which [SPOILER] the few saved passengers, having just been thanking Power's character for their salvation, immediately start to repudiate him and his decisions once rescue is at hand. [END SPOILER] It's been years so we won't grade, but if it pops up on TCM anytime soon, check it out.

"The Way Back" (2010)
It sure doesn’t sound like a recommendation, but “The Way Back” truly feels like you’re enduring the elements with the cast. This true story follows a diverse group of survivors after their escape from a Siberian camp during World War II, forced instead to survive off the land for weeks as they trek all the way to Mongolia. Despite a PG-13 rating, “The Way Back” is a grisly affair, taking a plausible look at the wear-and-tear of such a journey, the cuts, bruises and frostbite undergone by the cast in vivid detail. Director Peter Weir seems tailor-made for such a story, finding great detail in the journey and the struggle, as he’s presided over a career made up of the idea of travel and exploration into the unknown. As the lead, Jim Sturgess is fairly underwhelming, never conveying the inner life necessary for a movie like this, which largely dispenses with backstory in favor of you-are-there verisimilitude. But the surprise, at least to those who snark over the man’s un-bankability, is Colin Farrell. In a supporting role as Valka, a shady Russian with a violent past, he’s both memorably skeevy and undeniably magnetic, and an oblivious viewer might look at the unrecognizable actor and think he’s one of the distinctive amateurs that make up Weir’s talented ensemble. When he bows out three-fourths of the way through, it’s impossible to ignore that he’s taken a bit of steam from the film with him. [B]

"A Hijacking" (2012)
Put this in your pipe and smoke it, “Captain Phillips.” Tobias Lindholm’s affecting drama takes a look at the more common instances of piracy, where desperate Somalians seize a worthless Danish cargo ship and take the crew hostage, forcing the hands of the corporate bosses to undergo a dangerous negotiation. Bullied and badgered, the crew and their captors are immediately at odds until the plot stretches out to weeks, forcing an uneasy familiarity where cultural and geographic divides no longer seem so very deep. Still stopping far short of friendship, there is at least an understanding, as both captors and captives carry a restless animosity towards the suits up in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, those suits have to counter the desperate pleas and complaints from friends and family as the back-and-forth with the pirates extends into months. At first they seem heartless, refusing to budge as their offer to the pirates differs from their proposition by more than ten million. Soon, it becomes clear that hardball is a necessary tactic when dealing with men with guns who will continue to move the goalposts as far as how much they need based on how willing the corporations are to part with their dollars. Ultimately, the film is a magnificently unsentimental and even-handed account of a no-win situation, recognizable to anyone who has ever truly been under the gun and realized they can only minimize the damage, not save the day. [A-]

Swiss Family Robinson” (1960)
While most survival films are nightmarish explorations of how far people will go to simply live (cannibalism, cutting off one’s own limb, etc.), Walt Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” is almost pure joy. Sure, the titular family encounters some struggles like a hungry tiger and marauding pirates, but they ultimately live the sort of fantasy that we always desired growing up reading “Hatchet” and “The Boxcar Children.” Set to William Alwyn’s energetic, memorable score, the Ken Annakin-directed adventure was loosely adapted from Johann Wyss’s 19th century novel. En route to New Guinea, the Robinson family is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island in the West Indies. There the father (John Mills) works with his older sons Fritz (James MacArthur) and Ernst (Disney favorite Tommy Kirk) to create a paradise for his wife (Dorothy Maguire) and youngest son Francis (Kevin Corcoran, another Disney mainstay). Recreated at several Disney parks, the Robinson tree house features running water, a salvaged organ, a skylight and a library, making it nicer than most of our first apartments. The conflict in the film arises from the family standing against the pirates in an epic battle featuring coconut bombs and a pirate alarm, as well as the arrival of Bertie (Janet Munro), who intensifies the rivalry between Fritz and Ernst. We’re still upset over [SPOILER] Bertie choosing the brawny Fritz over the brainy Ernst, but we’ve also never gotten over the wonder of living in a tree house. The film largely holds up five decades after its release, remaining one of the better Disney live-action classics. [A-]

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  • EB | July 20, 2014 8:00 PMReply

    Surviving's easy. If you have grown up in an environment where no one gives a shit about you, besides someone brilliant who left too early, then you can survive in a place where no one gives a shit about you. Hmm..

  • Brenton | April 29, 2014 3:17 AMReply

    I cant believe some of you dislike the road so much, it is easily one of my favorites on this list and an incredible film. Why I love it is because its so real, sad and beautiful at the same time,and most of all very atmospheric. Not every movie needs to have heaps of shit going on, its a very heartfelt movie of a father son relationship in dire situations and while I have a few issues with some of those aspects there aren't many movies like it.

  • hugh | April 25, 2014 1:55 PMReply

    the road was more boring than watching paint dry. nothing happens. at all. really, it deserves an F.

  • waleed | March 26, 2014 8:26 PMReply

    i know a really good movie, its based in the book hatchet but called "a cry in the wild" great movie though its pretty old, was made in 1990 but still a great movie, the book was better, more detail

  • forkdat | January 12, 2014 11:28 PMReply

    The Road sucked. It was worse than awful.

  • volkan | October 30, 2013 6:30 PMReply

    vertical limit?

  • Mark Berman | October 23, 2013 7:30 PMReply

    Great list. Add Herzog's 'Aguirre: The Wrath of God' and we're good.

  • Doug | October 23, 2013 6:17 AMReply

    Jeez you didn't even mention Deliverance?

  • MOTHERFUCKING ASS | October 21, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    You put a "C" for ROAD? Sh*t

  • Dan | October 18, 2013 2:41 PMReply

    Very interesting list, I've seen and really like a lot of these films so I must really enjoy survival films. Love the inclusion of The Grey, went to see that expecting dumb action as you said yourselves and was struck by how that wasn't the case at all, it was really bleak philosophical stuff, Neeson is great in it and some of the deaths in it are so horrible and grim it depresses me, but in a good way.

    Interesting that you say The Playlist is divided over The Road, because I think I'm in the first camp that finds its bleakness beautiful, perhaps it might be to do with if you've read the novel? Because I had, loved it and I thought the film did it almost perfect justice, Viggo Mortensen is really great, as is the kid, the score is great, cinematography works really well and I cried so for me the emotion in it was overwhelming. And I don't find it prodding either, it seems quite realistic and the script is pretty good.

  • BEF | October 18, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    The Descent

  • Major Kalas | October 17, 2013 7:30 PMReply

    ...a german movie As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me would probably also fit it...

  • newyorker | October 17, 2013 5:02 PMReply

    my 10 movies about survival are
    1-Blue Lagoon
    2-Lord Of The Flies
    3-Life Of Pi
    4-Cast Away
    5-Into The Wild
    6-I Am Legend
    7-The Hunger Games
    8-Jurassic Park 3
    9-War Of The Worlds
    10-The Grey

  • Lisse | October 17, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    Regarding "Alive"... "ethincally realistic"... you shure dont understand that Uruguay has a pretty similar ethnical background than the US and the Rugby team had and has a closer ethnical background to other elite sports in most western countries.

    Don't try to be politically correct by talking bullshit.

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