Instinct and the natural desire to live usually kick in when we are in survival mode. Often times, it’s man vs. wild, man vs. nature, or man against man. This reality has and will always be a great theatrical premise because it serves as an inspiration regardless of the outcome of the feat.
There are hundreds if not thousands of films about survival be it fictional or based on true events. These movies always leave a lasting impression on viewers because they show the depths of human emotions: fear, sadness, anger, love, and joy. They give a glimpse of humanity’s core values: courage, wisdom, perseverance.
These stories are based on multiple accounts of people who survived a harrowing experience or from a lone survivor. Either way, survival movies offer an interesting and sometimes difficult view of a person’s will to live. Below you will find 22 of the best survival movies every man should watch.
The Revenant (2015)
This cinematic masterpiece is based on true events and puts Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the forefront of a grueling struggle to survive amid brutal-cold temperatures and life-threatening injuries.
During an expedition, a bear mauls him from head to foot and leaves him in a fatal state; broken leg, gaping wounds, punctured organs, and slashed skin. Glass has to crawl to safety. Two members of his expedition leave him for dead and one murders his son right before his eyes.
Fuelled by his desire to avenge his young son’s (Forrest Goodluck) death, the frontiersman utilizes his survival skills and treks through snowy terrain to track down his son’s killer and those who betrayed him. Glass battles extreme weather conditions and the dangers of the unknown in uncharted terrain despite the agonizing physical torture of his badly wounded body.
The bereaved father survives an infection brought by his near-fatal injuries by having maggots eat at his dead tissues. He endures being shot at by both the French and Native Americans.
He fights off malnutrition and hypothermia by making use of what nature has to offer (he sleeps inside the hollowed carcass of a horse for warmth). Glass lives through the relentless winter armed with a seething desire for justice.
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Screenplay: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith – Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Paul Anderson, Duane Howard, Lukas Haas, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur Redcould, Melaw Nakehk’o – Run Time: 2h 36m
Into The Wild (2007)
Straight out of college, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless (Emil Hirsch) decides on a whim to trek through North America and live in the Alaskan wilderness. He abandons his material possessions and donates his money to charity. Along the way, he meets a series of characters that help give meaning to his life.
The film is an adaptation of the biographical book of the same title by Jon Krakauer. The novel narrates the travels and life of McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s.
Into The Wild is a survival film that chronicles the character’s self-discovery and acceptance of the importance of family and friends in the pursuit of happiness. McCandless learns the hard truth during his solitude in the confines of an abandoned bus, which has become his home and ultimately his deathbed.
Director: Sean Penn- Screenplay: Sean Penn – Cast: – Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Zach Galifianakis, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook – Run Time: 2h 46m
In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, this adventure-drama film focuses on the aftermath of the sinking of the New England whaling ship Essex in 1820. It tells the harrowing experience of the survivors.
The crew-members battle to survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after a whale of mammoth size attacked and capsized their ship. Left with no choice, the crew abandons the sinking Essex and with limited supplies, they start the journey back to shore in the intact whaling boats.
The whale is persistent and continues to torment the crew further on until such time it finally decides to leave them in peace. The men remain adrift in the ocean for days on end battling starvation, storms, despair, and panic.
The feeling of hopelessness begins to sink in and the crew starts to question their moral judgment when food and water became scarce. They are left to do the unthinkable in order to survive.
The story is told through the recollection of the remaining living survivor Thomas Nickerson. It is 1850 and he recounts the horrors in an interview with author Herman Melville (whose novel Moby-Dick is largely inspired by the tragedy).
Director: Ron Howard – Screenplay: Charles Leavitt, Amanda Silver, Peter Morgan – Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Holland, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw – Run Time: 2h 1m
127 Hours (2010)
The film is an adaptation of the memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place by real-life canyoneer and sports enthusiasts Aron Ralston. It tells how he survived and escaped after a boulder trapped him inside an isolated canyon in Utah.
In April 2003, Ralston (James Franco) hikes Canyonlands National Park and goes through a slot in Blue John Canyon. He slips, falls, and in the process knocks a boulder that traps his right hand and wrist against the wall.
Thus begins Ralston’s quest to survive. He chips away at rocks in an attempt to free his hand. He records a video of himself to keep himself sane and rations his food. He recycles water (you know what I mean). Ralston eventually succeeds in freeing himself but after five grueling days.
For someone who has been trapped for 127 hours, you would expect him not to have the strength to get out of the canyon by himself. However, the will to live pushes Ralson to climb back up and find rescue.
You may be wondering how he pulled himself out of the situation. Let’s just say he did it through any nasty and painful means necessary.
Director: Danny Boyle – Screenplay: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy – Cast: James Franco, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan, Clémence Poésy, Amber Tamblyn, Bailee Michelle Johnson- Run Time: 94m
The Martian (2015)
Based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir, this sci-fi adventure film tells of survival on a distant planet. During a mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself alone after his team presumed he died during a fierce storm.
Watney must learn to adapt to his environment and deal with his situation smartly if he wants to survive. With the meager food that he has, the ingenious scientist soon finds himself planting vegetables on the hostile planet. He uses his wit and knowledge and eventually finds a way to signal Earth for his rescue.
The Martian is different from other survival films in that it doesn’t offer many twists and surprises. Instead, the plot is predictable.
The beauty in this movie though lies in the ability of the survivor to make light of his situation so to uplift his spirit. He remains funny, interesting, and likable, which makes the audience invested in his determination to survive and return to Earth.
Director: Ridley Scott- Screenplay: Drew Goddard – Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis – Run Time: 2h 31m
The Way Back (2010)
The film is loosely based on the 1956 memoir The Long Walk, which tells the story of former Polish prisoner of war Sławomir Rawicz. It chronicles his escape from a Soviet Gulag and into freedom during World War II.
The cinematic version of the story follows Polish army officer Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess) and seven other prisoners as they journey 4,000 miles away from the Gulag camp on foot. Along the way, they meet Polish orphaned girl Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who is also on a quest of her own.
The Way Back is a gripping story of survival in a very real situation where characters have to learn to adapt to their environment in order to live. It takes viewers on an exhausting and challenging journey as the group brave the harsh cold of Siberia and the hot and dry temperatures of the Mongolian desert.
The film shows their determination to survive despite their hostile environment. They battle the freezing cold, starvation, thirst, sandstorms, sunstroke, and blisters. They learn to rely on each other despite the doubts and suspicions that threaten to mar their trust on each other.
Director: Peter Weir- Screenplay: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke- Cast: Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Ed Harris, Mark Strong, Jim Sturgess, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård, Dragoș Bucur, Alexandru Potocean – Run Time: 2h 13m
Lone Survivor (2013)
Lone Survivor caters to war movie enthusiasts since it tells the story of survival on enemy grounds. It is loosely based on true events and told from the recollection of the surviving member of a SEAL group that was sent to war-torn Afghanistan.
Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster) are on a reconnaissance and surveillance mission to track and kill a high Taliban operative. The team arrives in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan where they were ambushed.
Luttrell is the only one who makes it out alive. He lives to tell the story of how the team fought for their lives when they were outnumbered by the enemy.
Lone Survivor highlights the realness of combat situations and people’s desire to live under overwhelming pressures from the enemy. It is an honest and brutal depiction of the repercussions of war and tells an emotional story about bravery and heroism.
Director: Peter Berg – Screenplay: Peter Berg – Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch – Run Time: 2h 2m
Rescue Dawn (2006)
A jungle is no place for a man to live, especially one who is unfamiliar with the territory. So when German-American US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) crashes into the Laotian jungle in 1966, he must learn to adapt to his environment in order to survive.
Rescue Dawn tells of a man’s fight for survival against man and nature. It is based on the true story of how Dengler lived through starvation, thirst, and physical tortures as a Vietcong prisoner of war. It highlights his plight to survive in one of the world’s vicious wilderness, where he battles both hot and cold temperatures.
The film takes viewers on an exhilarating ride of action and suspense but fails to display any human flaw to the hero as per usual with any other survival movies. Instead, Herzog paints Dengler as someone who feels no fear or despair during his harrowing journey, but only courage and the indomitable will to survive.
Director: Werner Herzog – Screenplay: Werner Herzog – Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davis, Zach Grenier, Toby Huss, Pat Healy, Marshall Bell – Run Time: 2h
The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006)
This is the most realistic depiction of survival in the real world. It shows the truth about surviving when you are broke, homeless, jobless, and on top of that, have kids to take care of.
The film tells an emotional and triumphant story of a father’s love for his son and his determination to provide him with the best care possible. It is a true story based on Chris Gardner’s (Will Smith) struggle of being homeless while trying to make a name for himself at a very reputable American stock brokerage firm.
He does this while trying to be a good father to his young son (Jaden Smith). Despite their situation of jumping from shelter to shelter day by day, Gardner never gave up on his dreams and looked at things positively. The film is very relatable and inspirational for the survival of real-life issues.
Director: Gabriele Muccino – Screenplay: Steven Conrad – Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Brian Howe, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer – Run Time: 1h 57m
The best survival films are usually those based on true events and Everest is no exception. Inspired by the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, it highlights the plight of a group of climbers as they struggle to survive against the brunt of nature’s piercing cold temperatures.
The story focuses on the survival attempts of New Zealand’s Robert Edwin Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) as they each lead an expedition to climb Earth’s highest mountain. A storm greets the group on their final ascent to the summit, which leaves them in an epic fight for survival against nature.
They battle through a fierce blizzard and the repercussions brought by freezing temperatures. They attempt to descend but with tragic results.
The film highlights the dangers of commercial Everest expeditions regardless of the expertise of the guides since rapid changes in weather conditions can pose problems.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur- Screenplay: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy – Cast: Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington – Run Time: 2h 1m
The Grey (2011)
Based on the short story Ghost Walker by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, the movie sees a group of oilmen stranded in Alaska after a storm crashes their plane. The men struggle to stay alive against the threat of wolves and amid the extreme cold weather.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) shows great survival skills among the survivors and he soon assumes responsibility as the leader of the group. Ottway is a skilled huntsman and knows how to deal with wolves. However, the men find themselves cornered by the carnivorous mammals on their way to seek protection in the woods.
The film tells a classic prey vs. predator story where the former is on unfamiliar territory. The grey wolves are comfortable in its own environment, which puts the men at a disadvantage when it comes to surviving their attack.
Director: Joe Carnahan- Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers – Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, Jacob Blair, James Badge Dale – Run Time: 1h 95m
I Am Legend (2007)
This zombie survival film is set in a post-apocalyptic New York City where US Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) lives alone with his dog Samantha. The story follows him as he and his companion make the most of what’s left of the city.
The movie takes viewers through the security checks and building of security procedures to the scavenging. All the while, we see the close bond the pair has developed in the course of their time together. We also learn about prior events through flashbacks.
For the most part of the film, the focus is on Neville and his dog. That is until the dead decides to come out and hunt. The pair must now learn to survive the zombie onslaught by any means possible.
Director: Francis Lawrence – Screenplay: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman – Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Willow Smith – Run Time: 1h 41m
Cast Away (2000)
This survival film highlights man’s ability to adapt to his environment under conditions where hope for rescue seems futile. It is the epitome of what a good and inspirational survival movie should be.
The story centers on Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a systems engineer, who finds a home in an uninhabited island after a plane crash. He lived off the island for years and learned to be satisfied with his meager living conditions of hunting food and making fires.
He is completely withdrawn from any actual social interaction. His only talking companion is a volleyball he calls Wilson.
Noland’s determination to survive makes him the Robinson Crusoe in this film. And just like Crusoe’s story, he eventually escapes the island to return to civilization.
Director: Robert Zemeckis – Screenplay: William Broyles Jr. – Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy, Chris Noth, Jennifer Lewis, Lari White, Vince Martin – Run Time: 2h 23m
All Is Lost (2013)
Robert Redford stars in this gripping story about perseverance, determination, and courage in the quest for survival amid uncontrollable conditions. It follows him as he drifts in the Indian Ocean battling the forces of nature.
Redford’s character nearly drowns, survives a storm, and lives through hunger and thirst while aboard an inflatable life raft. Despite his harrowing situation, he remains focused on the task at hand, which is finding ways to live.
Using his mariner’s instinct and resourcefulness, he is able to make clean drinking water. He lets the ocean currents guide him to his rescue. He remains undeterred in his quest to survive despite the threat of the sharks and unrelenting sun.
All Is Lost is similar to Cast Away in that it focuses on one man’s strong will to live. The only difference is that it lacks spoken words since more attention is placed on how one survives while adrift in the ocean.
Director: J. C. Chandor – Screenplay: J. C. Chandor – Cast: Robert Redford – Run Time: 1h 46m
The Road (2009)
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where most of humanity is gone. It follows a father and son as they battle to survive among what remains of the world and of the human population.
The threat comes from people who hold no values and do the unfathomable for the sake of survival. The ailing father (Viggo Mortensen) must protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at all cost amid the dangers of cannibals, thieves, and vicious gangs. All the while, they battle hunger and the freezing cold as they journey toward a warmer and safe place.
The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same title by Cormac McCarthy. While the book emphasizes on cannibalism as the theme for the shocking twists and turns, the movie uses father-and-son relationship and their struggles to steer the story forward.
Director: John Hillcoat – Screenplay: Joe Penhall – Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Kodi Smit-McPhee – Run Time: 1h 51m
12 Years a Slave (2013)
12 Years a Slave is a historical drama about survival during the pre-Civil War United States, where black slavery was rampant. It is a film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name.
The movie tells of his struggles as a New York State-born free African-American who is abducted and sold into slavery in 1853 New Orleans. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) endures physical and emotional torture, as no one believes that he is a free man.
He slaves off in the cotton farm while hiding his true identity. In order to survive, he assumes a different persona and pretends not to know how to read and write.
Passed from one slave owner to another, Northup survives hunger, malnutrition, and physical abuse. Despite his struggles, he never lost his identity and never wavered in his hope for freedom. A chance meeting with a Canadian man (Brad Pitt) who is against American slavery ultimately changes the course of his fate.
Director: Steve McQueen – Screenplay: John Ridley- Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard – Run Time: 2h 14m
Life of Pi (2012)
Filmmaker Ang Lee’s cinematic version of Yann Martel’s novel takes viewers on an epic journey across the Pacific Ocean where the hero learns the value of friendship, discovery, and survival.
The story follows an Indian boy named Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) who survives a shipwreck but is adrift in the ocean without food and water. His only companions are the animals who fell into the lifeboat with him; lion, zebra, orangutan, and a hyena.
Being wild animals as they are, one by one they soon perish. What remains is a Bengal tiger, whom Pi forms a close connection with and names him Richard Parker.
The dangers of the ocean and the unpredictable weather conditions prompt Pi to find ways to survive. He learns how to catch fish to sustain him and Richard. The boy and his friend eventually found their rescue after 227 grueling days.
The movie highlights the importance of adaptation and acceptance when in dire situations. It shows that man and beast can coexist; with the former capable of showing ingenuity and the latter the ability to learn.
Director Ang Lee – Screenplay: David Magee – Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu, Andrea Di Stefano, Shravanthi Sainath – Run Time: 2h 7m
This claustrophobic thriller sees American truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) in a race against time in order to survive. While in a contract job in Iraq delivering kitchen equipment, insurgent guerrillas capture him, render him unconscious, and place him inside a coffin-like box as a captive for ransom.
Conroy wakes up to find himself buried alive. He wakes up frantic and unable to move much in the small confines of the box. He finds ways to escape but his only means of survival lies in a lighter, some glow sticks, alcohol, his mobile phone, and a note.
Desperate to get out before he runs out of oxygen, he calls his family, co-workers, and even political figures and the American military for help. He tries to remain calm and think through his situation even as he feels his chances of rescue slowly start to slip away.
The entirety of the movie and action takes place in the box and for some, this may seem boring and uneventful. But Reynolds manages to capture viewers’ attention with facial gestures that convey his feelings. The voice actors also do a great job of projecting emotions to tell a story.
Director: Rodrigo Cortés – Screenplay: Chris Sparling- Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samantha Mathis, Robert Paterson, Ivana Miño, Stephen Tobolowsky – Run Time: 1h 35m
This is one survival film that begs the timeless question of “what would you do” when you crash in a cold uncharted territory with no food and water and minimal clothing to keep you warm.
Alive is based on the 1972 tragedy involving a group of Uruguayan rugby players and their relatives who become stranded in the Andes Mountain after a plane crash. They take refuge in the remnants of their wrecked plane, use body heat to keep warm, and ration food.
However, they are forced to resort to cannibalism when they ran out of the sustenance they need in order to scavenge around for supplies and find rescue. It took months before the survivors were finally found thanks to the resilience and bravery of a few of their own, who trek the mountain for days despite the cold just to find rescue.
Director: Frank Marshall – Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley – Cast: Ethan Hawke, Vincent Spano, Josh Hamilton – Run Time: 2h
Against the Sun (2014)
The ocean is a popular setting for a survival film including Against the Sun, which tells the story of three US Navy pilots who are forced to crash land their torpedo bomber in the South Pacific after it ran low on fuel. The men drift in the open ocean aboard a life raft with limited food, water, and little hope of rescue.
The film is based on true events that happened during World War II. It follows the harrowing experience of pilot Harold Dixon, radioman Gene Aldrich, and bombardier Tony Pastula, as they fight to stay alive amid the threat of sharks and harsh weather conditions. Despite their hunger, sleeplessness, and weakness, they continue to travel a thousand miles to safety.
Director: Brian Falk- Screenplay: Brian Falk, Mark David Keegan- Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Tom Felton, Jake Abel – Run Time: 1h 40m
Behind Enemy Lines (2001)
Owen Wilson delivers a memorable performance as Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an American naval flight officer, who finds himself alone on enemy territory.
The film is set during the Bosnian war and follows Lt. Burnett in his attempts to evade the pursuing enemy. A Serbian paramilitary leader is intent on killing him because he holds viable proof that genocidal crimes are happening in the remote area of the Balkans. The lone soldier is constantly on the run until rescue arrives.
Behind Enemy Lines is a classic escape and rescue mission filled with spectacular flight scenes, tension, action, and suspense. It shows a perfect depiction of flight-or-fight scenarios.
Director: John Moore – Screenplay: David Veloz, Zak Penn – Cast: Gene Hackman, Owen Wilson, Gabriel Macht, Charles Malik Whitfield, David Keith, Vladimir Mashkov – Run Time: 1h 46m
Martin Freeman stars in this rousing survival drama as a father who goes to great lengths to protect and save his child from a sickness that has turned the living into the undead.
It is the aftermath of the pandemic in rural Australia. Food is scarce and safety is uncertain. The government has no control over the spread of the disease and provides the survivors instead with a quick solution in case of an infection.
Andy (Freeman), still grieving the loss of his wife, treks the wilderness on a path toward a safe haven for his young daughter. Along the way, he scavenges for food and supplies from abandoned houses.
All the while, Andy is also thinking of ways to protect his daughter. He only has 48 hours to find people who can take care of her before he succumbs to his changing nature.
Director: Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling – Screenplay: Yolanda Ramke – Cast: Martin Freeman, Susie Porter, Anthony Hayes, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, David Gulpilil- Run Time: 91m