These classics will take you away from the constant survival of life.
Before ranking the “best” survival movies, it is important to understand what they are.
The genre of “survival” is as wide or narrow as the individual chooses. The natural disaster, the wake of human conflict, war, the day-to-day struggle for sustenance, the stranded/trapped/marooned traveler or explorer–all these can be “survival.” Technically, every movie about war is also a movie about survival. Even though survival can be less existentially defined, every movie about abuse and loss, grief, or poverty can be considered a survival movie.
This is a broad genre and there are likely to be one or two or 27 movies that we missed. We chose what we considered the best sub-genres. These are the following genres: disaster survival, adventure survival, survival horrors, post-apocalyptic survival and real-life survival.
These films can be animated features, documentaries, blockbusters and art-house cinema. (Short films could fill up another list.
We chose movies in which “survival” was more defined. These movies are where the protagonist’s life is at risk, not only their financial stability or mental stability. The fundamental tension that drives them is: Will they live? This tension is often unintentional. The protagonist may encounter the existential threat in a surprising way, either alone or with a small number of friends. While the risk to your life, storming a beach with an armored force under gunfire is not survival, as we define it. This drama can be transformed into “survival” by receiving a mission that sends two soldiers into unknown territory.
We also prefer more modern films. This is not only because it’s easier to stream, but also because we know that we will offend some film purists. So why not create our own rules?
These are 21 of the best survival movies – or, at minimum, 21 survival films we like and recommend you should see.
Touching the Void (2003)
Let’s start it off with a documentary – a documentary about survival at its most basic. Touching The Void is a documentary about the almost-deadly Peruvian climb by Joe Simpson, Simon Yates and others. This film features interviews with both climbers and real footage of climbers trying similar feats. This film is a tribute to humanity and one of the most amazing true stories of survival ever recorded on camera.
The Impossible (2013)
Another true story, this time fully dramatized. The Impossible is a story about Maria Belon and Enrique Alvarez, Spanish tourists who were on vacation in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Sometimes, real life seems more real than fiction.
The Revenant (2015)
The Revenant, which is loosely inspired from true events, is our first example in what you might call a “survival adventure“. This is where the stakes are higher than usual and character conflicts are especially contrived. The Revenant pits its protagonist up against any existential threat on the frontier. Animals. SNOW STORMS Other men. Bad hygiene is another problem.
A Quiet Place (2018)
There’s also “survival horror.” There are many options in this genre, where torture porn is a well-known classic. However, A Quiet Place is our favorite modern example of the genre. This is a simple idea executed perfectly and one of our favorite movie theater experiences over the past few years.
Utoya, July 22, 2018
Although we are hesitant to include Utoya in this list because “best” tends to mean movies that are entertaining, we feel it is the best of its tragic genre. Utoya, which was shot in continuous shots and from the fictional viewpoint of victims of the Utoya camp massacre, is a piece of art that just makes you feel more human. This is the most disturbing and disorienting movie on this list.
127 Hours (2010)
This biographical drama tells the story of Aron Ralston’s 2003 climb accident that left him trapped under a boulder. 127 Hours shows the cost of survival, something not every movie in this genre portrays.
Unknown to the man, he wakes up to discover that he is buried in a coffin containing only a lighter and a few random items. The film was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. It is not recommended for those who are claustrophobic.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
This is the first movie about war that we have included on this list. It doesn’t focus on soldiers but on civilians. Grave of the Fireflies is based on the short story of Akiyuki Nakasaka. It follows a brother-sister escaping from the firebombing of their house, which killed their mother. It is one of the saddest movies that you will ever see. It’s well worth a single viewing. A single watch is all you can handle.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
There aren’t many comedies on this list. Swiss Army Man doesn’t have a lot of comedy. In fact, it tears at your heart more than many “”–. But, the film is still a great knee-slapper. There are fart jokes in every genre.
Cast Away (2000)
Cast Away may be the most iconic survival movie ever made. One man. One man. One mission. This film also contains one of the most shocking return-to-reality moments. We will never see a buffet in the same way ever again.
Gravity, like A Quiet Place, is a simple concept that’s perfectly executed. Two astronauts are sent into space by an asteroid while repairing their spaceship. This film has an excellent director who makes sure that every beat is well directed.
Life of Pi (2012)
This film is set in a similar fictional universe to Gravity is Life of Pi and tells the story of a boy who becomes a tiger while he waits for help. It’s a mix of fantasy and adventure, and it’s also one of the best films on the list. You won’t be scared or sobbing. Well, maybe a little sobbing.
The Martian (2015)
Another survival adventure, The Martian Finds Astronaut (and Botanist!) is based on a novel. Mark Watney is trapped on Mars, and later attempts to escape. Tonally, the film is similar in tone to Cast Away. It has some needed doses humor and a plot structure that is more triumphant than tragic.
Into the Wild (2007)
Based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, who gave up everything to go to Alaska, and survived on his own, Into the Wild is now a popular genre. Sometimes it’s a warning tale, other times it’s a metaphor for unpreparedness. The movie isn’t just heartbreaking; it is also awe-inspiring beyond the ultimate tragedy.
The Rescue (2021)
Now, back to the documentaries. The rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave network after floods is the story of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, both directors behind Free Solo (a film we would consider “survival”, if climber Alex Honnold hadn’t willingly and knowingly put himself in danger). It is both inspiring and gripping.
1917 is a war movie set only. However, the cinematography is pure suspense. Two soldiers travel across No Man’s Land in order to deliver a message about time before their lives are lost. Their task is to deliver the message, but the real mission of the soldiers is to survive.
The Road (2009)
The Road will feel a lot like Grave of the Fireflies. It’s dark, gray, and depressing. The Road is based on Cormac McCarthy’s book. It follows a father-son team trying to survive in an extinction crisis. The ending is even more cheerful.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie that plays like The Road. It shows humanity at the edge of extinction, in a world that has been reduced to a deserted wasteland. This world, unlike The Road is vibrant and filled with men playing fire-shooting instruments on the front of speeding cars. That could have been used by The Road.
28 Days Later
28 Days Later is a survival horror film that inspired scenes in The Walking Dead. It helped revive the zombie genre in modern horror. Survival is not just about one’s life, it’s also one’s sanity and one’s humanity.
The Endless Trench
One man runs away from his family when war breaks out. He fears for his safety as the opposition gains power. His wife keeps his secret identity above, while he hides under his house. This movie is one of the most unique on the list, and well worth a look for anyone with a Netflix subscription.
Children of Men (2006)
The ultimate survival topic is the survival of humanity. Children of Men envisions a world where there is mass infertility, and population aging. Two people journey across England to survive in the midst of all the chaos. It is one of the greatest and most enduring films of the century.