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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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Rescue Dawn

"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

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

"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

"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

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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