“In the animal kingdom, one of the keys to survival is to outwit your enemies. And when you’re surrounded by carnivores, one of the best strategies is to fade into the background and disappear.”
-Neil deGrasse Tyson
“That survival instinct, that will to live, that need to get back to life again, is more powerful than any consideration of taste, decency, politeness, manners, civility. Anything. It’s such a powerful force.”
“Those of us who believe in God and derive our sense of right and wrong and ethics from God’s Word really have no difficulty whatsoever defining where our ethics come from. People who believe in survival of the fittest might have more difficulty deriving where their ethics come from. A lot of evolutionists are very ethical people.”
When the civilized individual becomes a simple prey, his only salvation is to deliberate himself from every moral code and to face his hunter with the same weapons. The survival films take usually part in the inhospitable nature where the Individual is struck between the savagery of elements and society. But the genre is not limited to this context and overlaps sometimes the social anticipation, the post-apocalyptic and fantasy. In all cases, the protagonists of survival are always far away from civilization.
If certain post-apocalyptic survivals take part in an urban environment, the setting is generally made to offer images of a city ravaged by some kind of scourge. Moreover, it is necessary to emphasize that the time left for a successful survival is often restricted to a few days or sometimes a few hours. Furthermore, in such films the body count at the end of the story is rather high.
“Survival ” is a cinematographic genre in itself, which can produce masterpieces and even weak movies. Man facing the savagery of men and/or nature. This is the definition of survival films. The urge to act (save his life at all costs), the abandoned place (often a forest, sometimes a desert or a city ravaged by Apocalypse), the time constraint (a day or two in hell, until the exhaustion of the characters). This gave some masterpieces on the Hobbesian violence (“Man is a wolf to his fellow man”) by highlighting the weaknesses of human nature.
Let’s see the top 6 survival movies:
6. The Hills Have Eyes by Wes Craven
Once moved strictly by underground subjects, adored by a handful of fans, the second film by Wes Craven (father of “Scream”) has became a classic of the horror genre, a model that will even inspire a lavish remake of Alexandre Aja. And a series B from 1977 where a family of cannibals thoroughly terrorized the occupants of a car camping who broke down in the desert, to be dissected by the scholars of the genre. Craven examines here the contexts of nature and culture suggesting that under the thin layer of civilization, the cannibalistic savagery is never too far away.
“In real life, says the director, human beings are sometimes threatened by terrifying dangers. Give them a narrative form, pretend to master it and learn to deal with it rationally”. Novice filmmaker Wes Craven already knows how to bring out the horror of a prosaic weekday. The scenes include Michael Berryman – the great bald with an egg skull – eventually eating the baby… or not. The answer is in the movie.
5. Rescue Dawn by Werner Herzog
German film director Werner Herzog does not know much about the cozy cinema. Dieter Dengler, a pilot fighter in the US Army during the Vietnam War, has only time to pack. He is ejected from his aircraft and landed in the territory of Laos where he suffered all kinds of abuse, languishing for two years in a prison camp before escaping and then surviving a long time as a wandering and hunted animal in the jungle. Herzog, the adventurer came to Thailand to replenish there the survivor’s story.
Christian Bale, thin as a rake (he is said to have lost 20 kilos for the role), portrays the character with strength and conviction. Rescue Dawn, never released in theaters, is a film about toughness, override the surliness of not wanting to die. Herzog is clearly more interested in the second part (the first is more conventional) when Dieter and his escape companion fled.
They were lost in nature and slowly but surely got weaker by the inability to find something to eat. The film then reaches its peak, seeming to be suspended between animality and humanity, life and coma. These are the moments of ecstatic truth that Herzog, the researcher of gold and hallucination, explores since thirty years.
4. Munich by Steven Spielberg
Here is a stunning, visionary work, with an ambiance of popcorn cinema. It starts like Independence Day: the sky of America is covered, the aliens attack. Ray (Tom Cruise) flees with her two children, like a hunted animal. Everything collapses and explodes, but the film is still not like the others in the category. His bias is summarized by screenwriter David Koepp: “We made a list of things we did not want at any price: the destruction of historical monuments, scenes in the devastated Manhattan, general skewers discoursing around a map, TVs filming the catastrophe … “
Steven Spielberg shows us a world where fear is familiar, catastrophes can always happen and where it’s essential to prepare for the worst. His film is more than a history of invading aliens. It shows the deepest terror: the extermination of the human race. The special effects are mostly like Dantesque paintings. A burning train crosses at night, a death train that borders a stunned crowd.
A landscape glows in the eye of men’s blood sucked and drawn by machines… To be able to offer the audacity of these pure nightmare visions, Spielberg knows how to reconnect with heroism and positivism when necessary. His film is nonetheless haunted by the barbarity of our history, the irremediable twilight of the death camps. This great show is permeated through the greatness of the soul.
3. Into the Wild by Sean Penn
Obviously Sean Penn identifies himself with his character (who really existed), an idealist hitchhiker who left without leaving any message for an endless hiking in Colorado and Alaska, far from his petty bourgeois milieu. Beyond the great American spaces: the secret garden of Penn, his inner scar, a youthful dream of an alternative life, which joins that of the Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac.
So, the film expands more in a certain abstraction (the boy alone on the road, propelled by its soles of wind) than restoring the psychological circumstances of the real story – a little bit too much of pathos all over. Happiness, more than elsewhere, would be in the same movement, in direct relation to the matter, the elements that Sean Penn knows how to make pass. With less reproving wisdom than romantic empathy for his hero, the director suggests that the immoderate taste of wilderness and isolation sometimes amounts to a desire of nothingness.
2. Gerry by Gus Van Sant
More than one and a half years of wandering in the middle of nowhere, an alternance without landmarks of the hot sun and blue nights, deafening squalls and mortuary silences: a movie without compass or backpacks. Gus Van Sant and actors Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, has not even taken the bare necessities. Gerry is about two boys lost in the desert. The director has shot the movie in reaction to his Hollywood films, inaugurating an experimental and marching trilogy which will continue with Elephant and Last Days.
But even the ultra formalist filmmaker Van Sant rests -as in the time of My own private Idaho- a writer loving his characters. The more the kids go astray, the more physical dimension of their derivative is palpable. The formal work takes its full meaning: the hypnotic stretching sequences, the game of travelling with the cadence of steps, the planing musics of Arvo Pärt, all competing to create a reality limit system.
So, that’s another border that threatens to erase between civilization and barbarism. We do not say more, but for those who love the unexplained, Gerry is a fantastic film. This does not prohibit the approach with an imagination at low tide, taking literally the dry regime inflicted on the protagonists to offload everything to better lose one’s self.
1. Deliverance by John Boorman
Four friends realize a bucolic dream. They leave their offices to live an outdoor life. These older Scouts decide to go down a turbulent river: camping, hunting, fishing… The beautiful ride becomes a nightmare. With this terrible film, whose strong scenes annoy the viewers, John Boorman voluntarily disconcerts us. At first he seems to endorse the theories that civilization has killed what is best in human nature. The healing experience currently undertaken by these heroes of this strange odyssey seems beneficial.
And then, gradually, this certainty turns into doubt, a doubt in the opposite certainty. The smiling landscapes conceal unsuspected traps. The noble savage is a bad person or a poor jerk. It is a damning. We can challenge it, you can also meditate. A fascinating tale, remarkably told.
Thank you for reading our articles about “Survival” movies. Our next article will be about the top 6 dramas of all time.