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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.
14
Into the wild

Into the Wild” (2007)
Surely there are fewer things more likely to kill a good film discussion than the dreaded ‘the book was better’ line. And while we realize that it is reductive and often maddening as a criticism, it is the greatest source of disappointment regarding Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s touching, impeccably-crafted piece of non-fiction. In this case, for this writer, it’s just too difficult to separate the two. The movie has its virtues: Emile Hirsch’s committed lead performance, solid (if a bit ordinary) nature cinematography, Eddie Vedder’s original songs which do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting, and a mostly free-flowing structure unencumbered by typical studio plot constraints. But director Penn goes for melodrama all too often when he could’ve taken a more nuanced approach. Take, for instance, [SPOILER] when Christopher McCandless’ parents are told of his death late in the film [END SPOILER]. Did we need a scene of William Hurt pacing down the street, falling to his knees and crying up at the sky? In fact, one of the main issues is the handling of the McCandless family: the parents (Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) are sketched as one-dimensional, upper-class rich people who argue all the time, while his sister, played by Jena Malone, is given the unfortunate task of narrating the film in an unnecessary voiceover. The film is fine, at times quite good and its heart is in the right place. But nothing can outdo the brilliant reportage by Krakauer (there’s something more rewarding knowing he actually tracked down all these people that met McCandless) and the way he bridges history with his main narrative. So … sorry, the book was better. [C+/B-]

Touching the Void

Touching The Void” (2003)
When it comes to survival stories, non-fiction tends to have the most potent effect. Some of the things that happen in “Touching the Void,” were they simply made up by a screenwriter, would lose the audience after a while. But this adaptation of Joe Simpson’s book of the same name by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Marley”) is a triumph of the documentary form, using interviews and re-enactments alike to great purpose. The story of Simpson and climbing partner Simon Yates’ near-fatal climb of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 is loaded with all kinds of juicy details any storyteller would relish to divulge. And somehow, going in knowing that both men survive is not something that spoils the film; it enhances it, though after watching, you have to wonder how these men could ever go back to normalcy. After successfully reaching the summit of the mountain, the two men get caught in a storm after Simpson falls and breaks his leg. The rest is better left unsaid if you haven’t seen the film, but rest assured it is a mind-blowing tale of survival, not only because it’s true, but also because its beauty lies in its elemental power. Human beings are capable of amazing feats when there’s simply no other choice in the matter. You either do these seemingly impossible things, or you die; it’s that simple. Distilling things down to that kind of base simplicity is thrilling and harrowing to watch, because you can't help but imagine what you might do if you were there. [A]

Alive

Alive” (1993)
Say what you will about the casting of familiar, American actors, there's still a great deal to admire in this Frank Marshall-directed recreation of the story of the Uruguayan rugby team travelling on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed into the Andes mountains on October 13, 1972, and their desperate bid to survive at all costs while trapped in the mountains. Instead of Ethan Hawke or Vincent Spano or Josh Hamilton, perhaps the film could have been cast to be more ethnically realistic, and sure, they speak English throughout the entire film. But you know what? This film works. Marshall and Oscar-winning screenwriter/playwright John Patrick Shanley (“Moonstruck," "Doubt") were unafraid to pull at audience heart strings with this highly emotional but never sappy adaptation of Piers Paul Read's 1974 book "Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors," and it overcomes its unfortunate shortcomings regarding verisimilitude by going big in all the right places. The plane crash sequence is still incredibly terrifying, with the tail being ripped off as it descends and several poor unfortunate bastards getting sucked out the back. Then there’s Hawke’s boyish, early '90s charm that touches all the right notes as he becomes the hero midway through when things get desperate. It’s visceral, exciting stuff, and the occasional moments of levity provide much needed respite from the horror of being stranded on a snowy mountain with little in the way of food or water. When the film has to address the awful reality that the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive—eating the dead bodies frozen in the snow—it doesn’t flinch away from it, but instead chooses to present it straightforwardly. “Alive” is another survival film that shows just how far people will go to keep on living. It may feel a bit too Hollywood in presentation, but the details and craftsmanship are just right. [B]

The Road, Viggo Mortensen,

"The Road" (2009)
Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wade through the bogs and misery of post-apocalyptic America in the hopes of reaching the coast, coming across cannibals, general devastation, and wavering flashbacks of Charlize Theron en route. Meant to be an emotional journey through the perils of a de-civilized world, this is a film that wildly splits The Playlist camp with some of us, including our reviewer way back when, finding its bleak darkness beautiful, and others being far less convinced. This writer's in the latter camp, finding a film that calls out for tears, prodding you with heightened father-son bonding (The Man to The Boy: "I will kill anyone who touches you. Because that’s my job.") and melodramatic, unintentionally funny, lines in and out of context (Wife: "My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born."). Meant to be a very dark piece of drastic dystopia, “The Road” becomes more of a farce onscreen (or maybe I'm just a mean old cynic) as the man and his son keep chugging along on their road to survival, pointedly using the word “survival” as a dialogue motif a bit too often to take it seriously. At one point, The Man asks “Do you ever wish you would die?” and the random blind man they've stumbled across (Robert Duvall) responds, “No. It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these." The film is just so burdened with “heavy” dialogue running the not-so-long gamut from cannibal escape plans to suicide to seemingly definite death. [SPOILER] The Boy does indeed survive the duration of the film, but being left with “good guys” (crooked-toothed Guy Pearce, his wife, their children and dog), the question remains, for how long? [C]

"Apollo 13"
"Apollo 13"

Apollo 13” (1995)
This was the space survival story to end them all until a little 3D film called “Gravity” came along recently. Regardless of where it lands comparatively, this is an incredible piece of suspense filmmaking by Ron Howard. It’s the film he should’ve won the Best Director Oscar for instead of “A Beautiful Mind,” but he wasn’t even nominated that year. No matter, history should be kind to this true-life drama that recreates the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. This is a great example of how you tell a story where the audience already knows the outcome, yet the film keeps you in its grip for a quick as hell 140 minutes and never lets go. Howard and his pitch perfect cast—Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris—do such fine jobs laying the groundwork for the characters, giving them dimension and earning, never demanding, the viewer’s sympathies that you’re so invested in the story that you forget reality and simply hope they survive at all costs. The effects are still good today, with the rocket launch sequence a highlight as well as all the exterior space ship shots holding up for the most part. And of course the brilliant rendering of zero gravity by sending the actors in a plane that created some 23 seconds of actual weightlessness. We’ve already praised this film as perhaps Howard’s best film, with which this writer agrees. It’s a fantastic piece of work, made by a director who’s all-too-often sniffed at by cinephiles. [A-]

As we mentioned, this is a broad topic with a long history, so we tried, more or less, to maintain a focus on films that were primarily survival stories and not simply those that had a survival subplot taking a backseat to other generic elements. However there were quite a few titles we left off for more pragmatic reasons: “Jeremiah Johnson” is in fact part of today’s other “All is Lost” feature on Robert Redford’s Essential Performances, so you can read up on it there; while “Open Water” was one of our picks for Movies You Should See Before/After Gravity, so that’s where you’ll find our thoughts on that one.

Elsewhere we just didn’t find the space for Kelly Reichardt’s elegiac Western “Meek’s Cutoff,” nor for 2009’s retelling of the story of “The Donner Party.” Both “Flight of the Phoenix” (1965) and its 2004 remake are straight-up survival films, though we’ll take the Jimmy Stewart version over its rather pointless facsimile any day. Staying with the desert/plane crash theme, 1965’s “Sands of the Kalahari” tells of a band of survivors turning on each other, their behaviour mirrored by a nearby pack of vicious baboons. More recently, we were unimpressed by Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible,” startling tsunami effects aside, while 1988’s “Survival Quest” also slipped off our radar, possibly due to being a bit shit. Post-apocalyptic tales like “When the Wind Blows” and “A Boy and His Dog” can also be read as survival narratives, though there’s other things going on in both and we kinda felt “The Road” covers similar territory in a more purely survival way, while the classic “Lord of the Flies” shifts away from straight-up survivalism and into socialization vs. savagery territory eventually. Which is also where the curio “The Savage Is Loose” ends up—the peculiar and rather skeezy story, ploddingly told, of shipwrecked parents whose young son grows up on the jungle island they wash up on, and ends up competing with his father for the sexual attention of his mother. George C. Scott directs and stars and while certainly unusual, it’s a pretty unpleasant watch.

If there are others you can’t believe we missed, let us have it below. Having suffered through all twenty of the above and faced down bears, storms, wolves, loneliness, space, ice, kidnapping, and all manner of ontological despair, we’re pretty sure we can handle anything the comments section can throw at us.

— Gabe Toro, Erik McClanahan, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Diana Drumm, Kimber Myers, Katie Walsh and Jessica Kiang


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