In 2003, mountain climber Aron Ralston headed to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park to hike, bike, and do a bit of canyoneering. While descending down a rock wall, a large boulder became dislodged and dropped on Ralston, trapping his right arm under its weight. His escape story received quite a bit of publicity, so it shouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you Aron emerged from the canyon minus that trapped arm, which he was forced to self-amputate with a pocket knife. In 2010, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle enlisted the help of James Franco to bring Ralston’s story to the big screen, and the result was, by most accounts, a rousing success, earning six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film also further cemented Franco, who spent a good portion of the film delivering monologues to a camcorder, as a serious talent.
It’s man vs…sand? That’s precisely the setup in Buried, a 2010 thriller starring Ryan Reynolds as a contract truck driver in Iraq named Paul Conroy. Conroy wakes up in a coffin, slowly recollecting an insurgent attack on his convoy. With only a lighter and phone, Conroy begins a frantic game of finding out who his captors are, contacting his loved ones, and getting in touch with the government to uncover his location, all from the snuggy confines of a wooden box buried somewhere in the desert. Director Rodrigo Cortes uses all sorts of camera tricks to keep this one-man show going, creating a uniquely claustrophobic descent into survival horror.
Set during World War II, The Way Back tells the story of Slawomir Rawciz (Jim Sturgess), a captured Polish soldier sent to a Russian camp where he is to meet an indefinite lifetime of torture and malnourishment. Rawciz devises a plan and convinces an eclectic group of prisoners to join in, Americans, Russians, Yugoslavians included. Thus begins their incredible 4,000 walk to India, covering every conceivable type of land with nature throwing everything in their path — bone-chilling snowstorms, blistering deserts, and rocky mountain terrains, all of them captured with striking pictorial qualities by director Peter Weir.
I’s not uncommon for someone to express the need to “find oneself” and embark on a personal journey of introspection and discovery; it is uncommon, however, to do it to the extent that Christopher McCandless did after he graduated from college in 1990. Eschewing the comforts of a conventional life, McCandless donated all of his savings to charity, packed up his Datsun, and left to explore America without so much as a word to his loved ones. He ultimately settled himself in an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wild, where he would attempt to live off the land, but with little outdoor experience, McCandless discovered the harsher side of nature; trapped within an unfamiliar territory, he slowly withered away. Emile Hirsch stars as McCandless in Sean Penn’s dramatization of his life, which was based on the popular Jon Krakauer biography of the same name, and while public opinion is split on whether Christopher McCandless was brave or simply naïve, most agree the film is a poignant yet accessible character study of a particularly fascinating individual.
Shot down over Laos over a particularly cloudy day in 1966, U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is captured and taken to a P.O.W. camp. Torture at the hands of his captors and bonding with the five other prisoners ensues, and Dieter ultimately devises a plan to hightail it out and into the deep jungle. This true story was previously captured on film by director Werner Herzog in the 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, where he and the real-life Dengler returned to Thailand to re-create and reminisce about his experience. Herzog applied this field knowledge again for Rescue Dawn, a down-and-dirty tale of survival that includes, among other things, the lovely sight of Bale eating live worms.
Back in 1985, two mountain climbers set out to be the first to scale the West Face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes; though they succeeded in reaching the summit, disaster struck on the way down when one of the climbers, Joe Simpson, slipped off the side of the mountain and shattered his right leg. After attempting valiantly to lower Simpson to safety, his partner, Simon Yates, was ultimately left with no choice but to continue down on his own or risk dying on the mountain himself; Simpson somehow managed to crawl his way back to camp on his own. His miraculous story of survival was chronicled in an autobiographical account, Touching the Void, and the story was so compelling that it was eventually depicted in the 2003 docudrama of the same name. Blending first-hand interviews with dramatized reenactments, Touching the Void a gripping tale of the power of sheer will, and yet another reminder that amazing feats often come with hefty price tags.
There are few things on Earth as beautiful, awe-inspiring, and simultaneously terrifying as the ocean, and 2003’s horror film Open Water is acutely aware of the latter. Loosely based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, the film depicts the harrowing trials of a married couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan), who are stranded in the middle of the ocean when their scuba diving group accidentally leaves them behind. What ensues is pretty much every oceanic nightmare you might imagine, short of a kraken attack: It begins early (and innocently enough) with petty bickering between the couple, but quickly escalates to panic, dehydration, swarming jellyfish, and circling sharks, and you know when sharks are involved, it’s all downhill. Made for just $500,000, Open Water offers a lot of bang for its buck, immersing the viewer in a palpable sense of dread and reminding all of us why our planet’s most abundant resource is also one of its most frightening habitats.
The story begins in 1930s Australia: Chief Protector of Aborigines of Western Australia, A.O. Neville, has ordered three half-caste girls (born of one Aboriginal parent and one white parent) to a re-education camp where they can learn to be servants and end their “tainted” lineage. The three girls flee the camp and begin a 1,500-mile walk back home. Their guide through the harsh outback: the rabbit-proof fence that keeps animals from the east out of the west. Along the way, the girls must evade the persistence advances of Neville and his Aboriginal tracker and the grueling sun itself.
Tom Hanks famously gained fifty pounds before filming Robert Zemeckis’s deserted island tale, all of it weight that he would lose again over the course of the story, and for his complete dedication to the role, he was rewarded with a Best Actor nod. One of the few entries on this list not based on real events, the film follows the struggles of a FedEx employee named Chuck Noland (Hanks) who is stranded alone on a remote island for four years when his plane crashes en route to the US. With no company and only the contents of washed-up delivery boxes to aid him, Chuck fails an escape attempt on a self-made raft before settling in for the long haul. He holds conversations with a volleyball, teaches himself spear fishing, and eventually builds a sturdier second raft to take him away from the island. Cast Away features one of Hanks’s most iconic performances, but it’s also one of Robert Zemeckis’s most mature films, a fascinating take on what we’re capable of in dire circumstances. Eat your heart out, Robinson Crusoe.
Set 80,000 years in the past, this unusual film distills the survival movie to its simplest, most human element: the quest for fire. When a tribe of homosapiens lost their natural source of fire, the most able men set out in search of a new source to keep warm and cook their meat. The actors communicate only through a specially-developed language of grunts and hand gestures, keeping the viewer immersed as they traverse and hopefully survive a harsh prehistoric landscape.