Fight for survival: the 26 best survival movies of all time


In film and television, life and death are constantly at stake across all genres. Many characters find themselves in threatening extreme situations on such a regular basis that the prospect of their demise is just an uncomfortable aspect of their day-to-day job.

Brave heroes, but we’ll look at them in more detail elsewhere! At the same time, even this list sometimes features people who knowingly accepted a risk. Nonetheless, most of them were ill-prepared for the incendiary predicaments they would ultimately end up in.

We take a look at films in which the struggle for survival of the main character(s) is a central plot element. Our 26 survival films selected here prove how different this can turn out and go!

1. Battle Royale (2000)

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, starring Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara, and Aki Maeda.

As a cynical measure against the flourishing juvenile delinquency, the Japanese government kidnaps entire school classes to pit them against each other in a life-and-death contest on a secluded island. Some students escape the perfidious game by committing suicide, while others can finally live out long-held violent fantasies with impunity. Purposeful groups also form, but the rules require a single victorious person.

Few list entries take the struggle for survival as sportingly literally as this modern classic of Asian cinema, which obviously served as an inspirational model for the Tributes of Panem and was notorious at the time for its relentless premise.

2. The Grey (2011)

Directed by Joe Carnahan; starring Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, and Dermot Mulroney.

In essence, John Ottway (Neeson) has come to terms with his life. The death of his wife contributes significantly to his poor mental condition. Still, of all things, a plane crash over the frosty Alaskan wilderness mobilizes long-forgotten forces in him: as a trained hunter, he has very special skills that he has acquired over many years – and rarely are they more in demand than in the wolf-infested icy landscape through which Ottway wants to guide the survivors against all odds. Unadorned and adrenaline-packed survival action!

3. All Is Lost (2013)

Directed by J. C. Chandor; with Robert Redford

Virginia Jean licks! A sailor (Redford), who remains nameless throughout the story, is awakened by the encroaching water, which suddenly puts his boat in distress. Damage caused by a collision with a container, the aged adventurer is able to make makeshift repairs. Still, from then on, he drifts across the ocean without navigation and is endangered in many ways. There he vacillates between a fighting will to survive and the onset of resignation.

Robert Redford, already 77 years old at the time of release, gives a great performance and is the only actor in this almost dialogue-free drama, which stages the immediate confrontation between man and the sea as a chamber play in the open air.

4. Alien – (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott; starring Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm

Although slasher flicks would, in principle, fit the survival theme of this list, we don’t really want to open this deep barrel here. Regardless, we still have to commend the reliable will to survive Ellen Ripley (Weaver): As the only female crew member aboard the spaceship Nostromo, she is confronted with unprecedented horror as a creature brought in from an alien planet decimates the crew with shocking ease. Without significant weaponry or combat training, Ripley must leave the ship urgently!

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Decades later, the dense atmosphere of this, in many ways groundbreaking classic, which spawned quite a few, mostly decidedly uninspired, imitators, continues to enthrall.

5. Into the Wild (2007)

Directed by Sean Penn, starring Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, and Kristen Stewart.

In the early nineties, Christopher McCandless (Hirsch), put off by the materialism prevailing around him, makes the decision to give up his possessions and turn his back on civilization: Seeking the happiness of a simple life, he sets out to settle in Alaska.

Based on true events and an associated reportage, director Sean Penn also and in particular devotes himself to the irritated family and the motives of the idealistic emigrant, whose stations in the wilderness are still the destination of like-minded pilgrims – keyword “Magic Bus.” Nature meets thoughtfulness!

6. Rambo (1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff; starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, and Brian Dennehy.

John J. Rambo (Stallone) is an introverted Vietnam veteran who, after his war deployment, wants to visit an old comrade and have something to eat in a small town. Back home, however, he is met with blatant contempt, resulting in his arrest and physical abuse by local sheriffs.

Spurred on by his traumas, he overpowers his tormentors. He flees into the woods, where enraged officials force a relentless chase on him – unaware of cornering a specialist in survival and guerrilla tactics.

Faced with the machine gun-toting killing machine of later installments in the series, it is forgotten in some places that Rambo is originally a vulnerable, misunderstood man. Thrillingly staged action standard!

7. Cast Away (2000)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Chris Noth

With acclaimed and award-winning flicks like “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and even “Captain Phillips” and “Philadelphia,” there would be a whole handful of Tom Hanks films that would do well on this list.

The winner, however, is perhaps his most popular contribution to the survival theme: in “Cast Away” he plays FedEx employee Chuck Noland, who is stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash and – loosely based on Robinson Crusoe – must make do with its meager resources and some washed-up objects.

If nothing else, Hanks was honored with a Golden Globe for his poignant friendship with a volleyball!

8. The Martian (2015)

Directed by Ridley Scott; starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels.

The Mars mission “Ares III” must be aborted head over heels when the crew is caught in a storm. While leaving the Red Planet in a hurry, astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) has an accident and is mistaken for dead by his team and left behind. Back to consciousness, he accordingly finds himself all alone on Mars and quickly realizes how to deal with his predicament: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”.

Onlookers enjoy above-average intelligent blockbuster cinema thanks to Watney’s science-themed soliloquies and masterful direction by “Alien” legend Ridley Scott. Certainly one of the better Space movies!

9. 127 Hours (2010)

Director: Danny Boyle; with James Franco

The time-honored “better off poor than poor” aphorism proves to be the only prospect of hope for Aron Ralston (Franco): While climbing in Bluejohn Canyon, Utah, the climber takes such an unfortunate fall in a crevice that his right hand is trapped under a boulder.

Ralston’s cries for help fade into the deserted mountains, where chilly nights and a lack of water make life increasingly difficult for the unlucky man. Hallucinating, Ralston reviews his life and decides it’s not meant to end yet – even if he won’t be able to save himself in one piece.

Six-time Oscar-nominated film adaptation of a true incident whose display of stamina is unforgettable!

10. The Revenant (2015)

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson

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Nineteenth-century trapper Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his son roam the United States in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company service. Attacking Native Americans ambush their expedition party and set Glass’ ordeal in motion: in the course of the unplanned route change, he is critically wounded by a female grizzly bear.

Standing at death’s door, he must also watch as the greedy John Fitzgerald (Hardy) stabs his son and buries Glass alive. Needless to say, what he is looking for after surviving once again.

Sheerly speechless panoramas of the wintry wilderness nabbed Best Director and Cinematography Oscars, while DiCaprio’s committed performance earned him his first Best Actor nod.

11. Cloverfield (2008)

Directed by Matt Reeves; starring Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, and Lizzy Caplan.

Rob (Stahl-David) moves to Japan for work, which is why his friends throw him a lavish farewell party. When the earth suddenly shakes in New York, the celebrating society initially assumes it’s an earthquake – but a demolished Statue of Liberty and fleeting sightings of a towering monstrosity reveal to them that their dawning struggle for survival has an altogether stranger cause.

The found-footage style usually reserved for low-budget horror productions meets capable makers with blockbuster budgets in “Cloverfield,” making the tried-and-true “monster vs. metropolis” story more immersive than ever before!

12. The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Directed by Robert Aldrich; starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, and Peter Finch.

Just a year after the publication of Elleston Trevor’s literary original, this star-studded adaptation was released under the same name. In both cases, the story is told by the crew of a cargo plane, which consists of army members, technicians, and workers from an oil company, among others.

Due to a sandstorm, the pilot (Stewart) has to make a rude emergency landing of the transport plane – in the middle of the Sahara. In addition to running out of water supplies, internal disputes threaten to make survival considerably more difficult.

What the desert adventure may sometimes lack in plausibility, it makes up for in strong performances in the men’s fight.

13. The Road (2009)

Director: John Hillcoat; with Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall

After an unspecified catastrophe, the United States has been transformed into a wasteland hostile to life. A father-son pair (Mortensen and Smith-McPhee) come to terms with the inhospitable conditions rather badly than well and wander through the desolate expanse in search of food and resources. In addition to starvation, scattered gangs of other survivors are a constant source of danger: Supply problems are mitigated by some of them through cannibalism.

A faithful adaptation of the tragic Cormac McCarthy novel, whose bleak end-time atmosphere is effectively supported by strong acting and a soundtrack by Nick Cave!

14. Open Water (2003)

directed by Chris Kentis; with Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein

Daniel Kintner (Travis) and Susan Watkins (Ryan) travel to the Caribbean together to bring their stress-ridden relationship to a climax. They go out to sea with a diving group and enjoy the idyll underwater – until a chain of unfortunate circumstances causes them to be forgotten on location. Drifting helplessly in the open ocean, natural dangers soon loom, while as hopes for rescue diminish, so does the potential for conflict between Daniel and Susan.

From harmless to horror: The minimalist survival thriller transforms a dream vacation into a completely unexpected extreme situation and stays in your mind precisely because of the realistic “it could happen to me” factor.

15. Rescue Dawn (2006)

Director: Werner Herzog; with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies

Director Werner Herzog is obviously fascinated by the fate of the US-American pilot Dieter Dengler. The latter was shot down in 1966 during the Vietnam War and subsequently fell into Laotian captivity. He escaped only after brutal torture and an escape through the jungle draining on all levels.

After Herzog had already dedicated the documentary “Escape from Laos” to the subject close to his heart, he followed it up with “Rescue Dawn,” a sovereign staging of the events in authentic-looking locations. Lead actor Christian Bale was also in his element, as he was “allowed” to lose considerable weight for his role.

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16. Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón; with Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

It’s actually just repair work, but Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) make her mission personal in each case. While the biomedical scientist celebrates her first-ever field mission in space, he’s on the cusp of a well-deserved retirement. When flying debris destroys their space shuttle, however, the two are catapulted into the vastness of space – can the experienced astronaut guide the initially panicked debutante through the life-threatening situation?

A whopping seven Academy Awards underscore the status of this critics’ darling, which effortlessly mixes spectacular blockbuster spectacle with soulful moments.

17. Buried (2010)

Directed by Rodrigo Cortés; starring Ryan Reynolds

The desperate struggle for survival of Paul Conroy (Reynolds) takes place in a suffocatingly small space: tied up, the freight driver wakes up in absolute darkness and soon has to realize that he is buried alive in a coffin under the earth. A cell phone and a lighter seem to be his only tools to find a way back to freedom possibly.

This Spanish production scores points for its oppressive premise, which is all too easy to put yourself in the middle of. Great drama on a claustrophobically small stage!

18. The Edge (1997)

Directed by Lee Tamahori, starring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, and Elle Macpherson.

An assignment takes photographer Robert (Baldwin) to Alaska, where he is to shoot a model named Mickey Morse (Macpherson). The eye candy is married to billionaire Charles (Hopkins), who unceremoniously accompanies Robert on a flight to another subject.

However, the plane crashes in the middle of the unforgiving wilderness, quickly familiarizing the survivors with the dangers of the great outdoors. Charles is quite a match for them – though he has reason to believe that Robert might take advantage of his demise!

Prominently cast male feud in the face of death, which incidentally includes one of the last film roles of trained Kodiak bear Bart, the Bear.

19. Life of Pi (2012)

Director: Ang Lee; with Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Young Pi is the son of a zoo owner who wants to pull up stakes in India and relocate the family, along with the exotic animals, to Canada. During the voyage, the freighter is shipwrecked; Pi, the only human survivor, is able to escape onto a makeshift raft accompanied by a Bengal tiger.

After initial difficulties in dealing, the mismatched pair come to terms, drifting aimlessly in hopes of rescue from the ocean. But how reliable is Pi as a narrator in the face of this incredible story?

The metaphorical power of this literary adaptation is wrapped in impressive images – Oscars were awarded for directing, cinematography, visual effects, and film music.

20. Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (2007)

Director: Gonzalo Arijon

Even in feature films, it is sometimes difficult for viewers to witness a story based on true events. After all, the comfortable distancing à la “it’s just a screenplay” is much more difficult with the appropriate background knowledge. Good documentaries amplify this effect many times over, as “Stranded” in particular proves extremely impressively: The Fuerza Aérea Uruguaya Flight 571, which crashed over the Andes in October 1972, is rehashed.

In arctic temperatures, the survivors must feed on the bodies of the dead in order to survive the time until rescue. With “Survival!” from 1993, of course, the dramatic material has long been adapted, but the intensity of real testimony simply can not be surpassed.

21. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

22. The Book of Eli (2010)

23. Children of Men (2006)

24. The Hunger Games (2012)

25. Apollo 13 (1995)

26. I Am Legend (2007)

Whether man versus nature, man versus monster, or man versus man, the film characters represented here may go through their understandable moments of weakness. Still, their will to survive cannot ultimately be tamed. Of course, one wishes oneself never to face even a remotely comparable dilemma – yet we certainly wouldn’t want to miss our grueling experiences with brave fighters on the big screen!

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