When times get tough, the movies have to get tough too. The past decade has seen a number of brilliant survival movies, large and small, rising to the highest heights of the box office and achieving the most coveted awards in the industry.
It may seem like an odd genre to please so many crowds in a time when most of what people want from the movies is breezy escapism. But shotgun some of these movies and you’ll find yourself with spirits lifted, and hearts roused, in the most surprising of ways. These are our ten picks for the best survival movies of the 2010s.
10 Tunnel (2016)
Kim Seong-hun’s seemingly-simple story, about a man trapped in a collapsed mountain tunnel with only a dying cell phone and a few days worth of food and water, expands from a survival struggle to a drama of institutional incompetence and a debate over the weight of one man’s life.
The idea of a man being trapped just out of reach, with no real urgency beyond their need for food and water, paints a uniquely grim, and fundamentally limited, picture but Tunnel continually finds ways to expand its drama and escalate its tension. Ultimately attaining a classic feel through the application of some simple, but genuine, laughs and tears.
9 The Revenant (2015)
Most often remembered for all the grueling things that Leonardo DiCaprio had to do to finally win that Oscar, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic anti-Western will almost certainly live on through the years thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s striking, naturally lit, cinematography. (Earning one of The Revenant’s other two Academy Awards.)
Whilst populated almost entirely by conspicuously Hollywood-ish actors in noticeably un-Hollywood-ish locations, it’s the natural world that steals the show. Telling the more detailed story and possessing the most incontrovertible beauty, overshadowing these raging performances of clashing personalities. Their quests for money and honor and vengeance seeming all the more ultimately petty in the face of the magnitude of their surroundings.
8 Gravity (2013)
To reuse a worn out analogy, Alfonso Cuarón’s orbital disaster film, Gravity, does for space what Jaws did for the ocean. The main difference, of course, being that you’re far less likely to go to space than you are to a large body of water so the impact is softened a little. (Not to mention that space is already pretty scary to begin with.)
Regardless, the image of poor Sandra Bullock uncontrollably hurtling out into an infinite void of nothingness was an image burned into many a viewer’s anxious nightmares for some time. The simple act of hanging on becomes so much more tense when the potential drop has no bottom.
7 Arctic (2018)
Joe Penna’s workmanlike interpretation of the stranded man story is most skilled in its moments of restraint. With next to no dialogue, the story is told through key pieces of information that the audience is left to surmise for themselves.
Aside from the pleasant sensation of being treated like you’re smart enough to figure things out for yourself from basic context clues, Arctic’s stripped down narrative allows it to more readily depend on Mads Mikkelsen’s performance. And he is, after all, your only rock in a harsh wasteland. A smart, and smartly acted, survival film marred only somewhat by its direct similarities to another film on this list.
6 The Impossible (2012)
J.A. Bayona followed up his smash hit debut The Orphanage with a wholly different take on emotional terror. The Impossible adapts the account of Spanish physician María Belón regarding the events she and her family experienced during and after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which hit the resort they were staying at in Khao Lak, Thailand.
It’s an easy concept to dismiss out of hand for being a First World take on a Third World experience, as many critics did. But, beyond its impressively realized scope and career-best performances, the driving force behind Bayona’s vision is the prevailing idea of basic human decency in the face of any tragedy.
5 The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott completely reverses the polarity of Prometheus, while keeping many of its core design elements the same, to create a thoroughly unique science-fiction survival comedy. The adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel reimagines the tropes of the uplifting astronaut movie into a ‘What If’ tale of scientific superheroes. Its familiar vision of a not-too-distant future, for once, seeming not quite so bad.
What could have so easily been a drawn out, sombre, drama feels more like a roaring literary adventure in the spirit of The Swiss Family Robinson. Mars’ desert becoming an ocean and Matt Damon’s endearingly nerdy botanist a conquering castaway. A movie so upbeat that even Sean Bean’s character doesn’t die.
4 127 Hours (2010)
Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Aron Ralston’s memoir may be the past decade’s prime example of a movie where you go in already knowing the ending. The emotionality and thrills that the film is able to pull from that set up is the truest testament to Boyle’s ingenuity as a director and Franco’s capabilities as an actor. Both being nominated at the following year’s Academy Awards along with several other colleagues.
As grim as it may seem – a story about a man who’s trapped, alone, in a desert canyon with no hope of rescue – it’s a story that all those involved in saw as triumphant and life-affirming.
3 Theeb (2014)
Set in Jordan’s vast Wadi Rum desert during the First World War, Theeb follows its title character, a young Bedouin boy, as he involves himself in a mission with his elder brother and a visiting British soldier. Theeb’s youth and inexperience cause problems on the trail but they’re quickly overshadowed by the seriousness of other events, resulting in him having to make an unlikely alliance in order to stay alive.
Sharing the same time period and locations used by David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, Theeb noticeably aspires for an epic quality and what it lacks from the absence of major studio backers and professional actors it makes up for in authenticity and sheer originality.
2 All Is Lost (2013)
J.C. Chandor’s minimalist tale of an old man lost at sea was a significant change of pace for the Baja studios that were christened by the voyage of James Cameron’s monster seafaring hit Titanic sixteen years prior. The two movies seemingly couldn’t be further apart yet, with virtually no dialogue and a subdued score, All is Lost feels at least equally thrilling and grandiose in scale. Robert Redford’s lone performance enveloping anyone caught in his wake.
Though ever-encroaching, nature doesn’t feel so much like a character in the protagonist’s constant struggle for survival. Certainly not an antagonist, like in a lot of survival movies. The struggle is against time and that’s relatable for landlubbers and sailors alike.
1 The Grey (2011)
Not a movie that has any love in the community of people who appreciate accurate depictions of wolves on screen, The Grey nonetheless strikes a unique balance between explosive and pensive. The metaphorical wolves of death in question fall upon a group of Alaskan oil workers after a horrific plane crash. Stranded in the icy expanse, the toughest of men are faced with an insurmountable challenge against the unforgiving landscape and even crueller twists of fate.
Masonobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is gorgeously slick, and the perfectly pitched ensemble provides no shortage of unorthodoxly hard-boiled dialogue, but it’s Liam Neeson’s central performance that makes the movie soar.
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