I love watching movies when I get the time and I have a particular fondness for action movies. Action movies tend to cross paths with the horror, science fiction, and, of course, survival sub-genres.
Now, educational films have been around for forever and a day and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. There are many types of educational films available in a variety of subjects; one series that comes to mind is the You Can Read series of videos.
When it comes to survival films, not all of them have lessons to be learned; some are just silly popcorn flicks – movies with which you waste a Friday night with some friends. You can either learn lessons on what to do and what not to do or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride, reveling in the schlock-fest of corny acting and bad effects.
Some messages/lessons are also more subtle than others, requiring multiple viewings before you fully understand what’s going on.
Regardless of whether it’s an educational film or a shocking action movie, if you’re in the right mood; you’ll have fun – which is kind of the point when it comes to movies.
With that said, not all survival movies are created equal. Some movies are better than others at depicting survival situations, but what are some of the best films in the sub-genre? Well…let’s find out, shall we? Here are 26 of the best survival films to watch.
1: Cast Away (2000)
Lessons from Cast Away:
- Survival is harder than it looks.
- Take nothing for granted.
Produced and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Cast Away is an absolute must-watch. The film stars Tom Hanks as a man who ends up stranded on a deserted island following a plane crash, and must fight to stay alive and get back to civilization and his family.
The story is great, and the survival element of the story is amazingly well done. There’s a feeling of gritty realism that only a few films ever manage. Cast Away was released on December 22, 2000 and did very well. It was produced on a budget of $90 million and made $429.6 million at the box office.
What makes this film great, and you’ll see this a lot on this list, is that it shows us the reality of a survival situation. It’s difficult, Hanks’ character is a city man; he’s not meant to be on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere. He doesn’t know what to do or how to do it and must learn on the fly.
If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend checking it out because it’s worth a watch!
2: Touching the Void (2003)
- Never give up.
- Even the best laid plans can go awry.
Based on the book of the same name by Joe Simpson, Touching the Void is a documentary-style survival film that, to me, demonstrates exactly what a person can do when push comes to shove, and they have no choice.
The story follows Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, a pair of friends who made the first successful ascent of the West face of Siula Grande in Peruvian Andes in 1985. Unfortunately, the descent wasn’t a good experience.
As they made their way down the mountainside, Joe Simpson fell and ended up in a crevasse – with a broken leg from an earlier fall. He found a way out and spent three days getting back to his camp, his friend, and safety.
Touching the Void was released in December of 2003 and made quite a splash; raking in just under $14 million at the box office and being hailed as one of the 100 Best Documentaries of All Time by PBS.
3: Open Water (2003)
- Stay alert and make sure you know where you are.
- Stay with the group.
Open Water is a film that will probably put you off scuba diving – at least for a little while.
The story follows a couple, Daniel Kintner and Susan Watkins, who take a scuba diving vacation in order to spend more time together.
During a group dive, the couple is accidentally left behind by the boat and end up stranded in the middle of the ocean. They soon realize that they must work together to survive while they’re being circled by sharks.
This film is one of the most… disturbing survival horror movies that I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot! It’s loosely based on the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan who went on a scuba diving trip in 1998 and, like the characters in the film, were left behind by the dive company – the group had been miscounted.
As far as lessons go, it’s simple: stay alert and don’t leave the group! How the Lonergan’s were missed in the headcount isn’t known – as far as I could find – but the couple in the film leave the group which results in them being left behind.
4: 127 Hours (2010)
- Your limbs are disposal.
- Let people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
A biographical film based on Between a Rock and a Hard Place. This is the story of Aron Ralston, a canyoneer who ended up trapped by a boulder in an isolated area of the Bluejohn Canyon in April 2003.
The film stars James Franco as Aron Ralston and recounts the period from the moment he woke up after the accident to the moment of his rescue – around 5 days and a bit or 127 hours in total.
This film is intense, the amputation scene was particularly nasty and nightmare-inducing. Like Cast Away before it, this movie demonstrates the effects of trauma and prolonged exposure to the elements and gives viewers a crucial safety tip: tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. This allows friends and family to send out the cavalry charge if you’re not back on time.
5: Life of Pi (2012)
- Adapt and use what you have to the best of your ability.
- Don’t be picky about what you eat, so long as it’s edible.
The story of a boy who’s stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger following a shipwreck was a major hit when it was released, grossing just over $600 million at the box office. The film was initially shown at the New York Film Festival on September 28, 2012 and it was released to theaters on November 21, 2012.
As far as survival lessons go, the central lesson is adaptability. At the outset, Pi doesn’t have all the usual tools and/or knowledge toe deal with his predicament. He must adapt and use what little he had at his disposal.
He builds a shelter, isolates himself from the tiger, learns to use solar stills to filter salt from seawater to make it drinkable. He also quickly gets past a food-related dilemma; leaving his vegetarian diet and learning to hunt/fish in order to survive.
6: Captain Phillips (2013)
- Never give up.
- Have an emergency plan in place and practice it.
- Stay calm and keep your wits about you.
Based on a true story, Captain Phillips tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somalian pirates in four days April of 2009 when they boarded the Maersk Alabama, and forced him into a lifeboat.
There are a few different lessons here, the first is to never give up; Tom Hanks is always doing something to keep himself ahead of his captors. He stays calm throughout the bulk of the film before the climax and the initial reaction to the arrival of the pirates demonstrates the usefulness of having an emergency plan in place.
There’s also a rather underused survival tactic demonstrated: compliance. Let me explain. When you are in a confrontational situation, there are typically 5 responses: fight, flight, posture, freeze, and submit.
Compliance is a form of submission. The captain does whatever he can to get out of the situation but, by and large, he’s compliant with his captors and does whatever he’s told to do.
7: Alive (1993)
This one is NOT for the squeamish! The lessons from this one are:
- Make sure your food is well-rationed.
- You will eat pretty much anything when you’re desperate enough.
Alive is based on the story of Uruguayan Airforce Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes on the 13th of October 1972. Those who survived the crash spent 72 days trapped in the mountains and, in order to survive, resorted to cannibalism when their meager supplies ran out.
The film shows how far people will go when they’re desperate to survive – especially when they only have a tiny number of supplies.
8: Flight of the Phoenix (2004)
- Teamwork and good leadership are vital.
- Keep track of supplies/rations.
- Tell people where you’re going.
- Be wary of strangers.
Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of a 1965 film and based on a book of the same name that was published in 1964.
The plot follows a group of people who survive a crash landing in the Gobi Desert. The survivors work together to build a new plane out of the wrecked one so they can go home. Tempers flare, egos get in the way, supplies run low, and things just don’t seem to want to go smoothly.
This film illustrates the importance of strong, reliable leadership and teamwork when faced with an obstacle to overcome. If you’re with a group, you’re more likely to survive if you stick together and work together.
9: Carriers (2009)
- Try to maintain a good mindset.
- People can turn on you in an instant.
This is one of those films where the lessons aren’t stated outright. The film follows a group of four, two brothers, Ryan and Danny, Ryan’s boyfriend Bobbi, and Danny’s childhood friend, Jennifer.
The world has been ravaged by a highly contagious virus/disease for which there is no cure – oddly ironic considering current events. It’s every man for himself, and as the foursome travel in search of a safe haven, they’re pushed to the limits of their abilities to survive – especially when Ryan and Bobbi are infected.
I love this movie! It’s got all the hallmarks of a great sci-fi thriller, but with the typical made-for-TV cheesiness.
The group starts out very optimistic and making jokes but as the film progresses you see how Ryan, the de-facto leader of the group, will do pretty much whatever it takes to survive – including killing two motorists for gas; among other things.
By the end, you’ve seen characters turn on each other, you’ve seen people give up hope, and the resulting ending is… bittersweet. Danny and Jennifer have survived, but in the process they’ve lost two dear friends.
If you haven’t seen this one, do yourself a favor and check it out; it’s kind of cheesy at times, but the overall grimness of the film’s tone and the brilliant performances will have you hooked.
10: The Adaptations of I Am Legend (1964, 1971, 2007)
Okay, so I Am Legend is a 1954 sci-fi horror novel by Richard Matheson that follows a man who survived a pandemic that turned the infected into vampires.
He spends his days scavenging supplies, killing and/or studying vampires, while trying to avoid being killed, of course. The book was adapted three times and while there are some minor differences between them, the story is mostly the same.
The Last Man on Earth was the first adaptation and was made in 1964. It starred Vincent Price as Robert Morgan and, apart from the name change of the main character, the film is the most faithful adaptation of the novel. Morgan has to survive in a post-apocalyptic, vampire-ridden world.
A second adaptation, The Omega Man was released in 1971 and stars Charlton Heston as Robert Neville a man living in a world where most of humanity has been destroyed by a plague brought on by biological warfare.
The few that remain have become nocturnal mutants (although they don’t look mutated beyond a change in skin and eye color). These mutants pose a serious threat to Neville’s safety and he has to fight to survive.
The third adaptation, I Am Legend, was released in 2007, and follows Will Smith in the role of Robert Neville as he works to develop a cure for a pandemic that came about when a cure for cancer goes wrong. To do this, he captures and studies the mutants that survived the pandemic.
Now, why are all these films in one entry? Because, while they’re all good, they miss out on a key point: the moral of the story.
You see, in the book, Neville is captured and realizes that the vampires aren’t the monsters he thought they were. His assumption was wrong. In a survival situation, you can’t afford to make assumptions.
If you make a mistake, it can get you into trouble. Neville in all three films and the novel also let’s his guard down and ends up captured (novel) or killed (films) – another example of why you should stay alert!
11: Into the Wild (2007)
- Anything that can go wrong, likely will go wrong.
- You can’t control everything that happens.
- Always come prepared; make sure you have the time, equipment and knowledge to survive in the wilderness.
Into the Wild is a biographical survival drama film based on the book of the same name. It tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a man who hitchhiked from South Dakota to Alaska in April of 1992 and took off into the Alaskan wilderness without suitable equipment and without the required knowledge for how to live off the land properly.
This didn’t go too well as Christopher was unable to return to civilization and passed away. His body was found by a pair of hunters.
As far as how he died, there are two theories: starvation or poisoning. He survived by hunting rabbits, porcupines, squirrels, and birds and, at one point, a moose.
Unfortunately, the moose meat spoiled before he could make use of it and the smaller animals didn’t have much meat on them. Another theory is that he accidentally poisoned himself by mixing up plants, mistaking something poisonous with something edible.
Either way, the lessons from this one is clear: you cannot go off into the wild without the proper equipment or knowledge. Guidebooks do NOT equal proper training/experience.
12: The Shallows (2016)
- You can’t do anything if you panic.
- There are always warning signs to trouble; keep an eye out.
- Don’t let your guard down.
- Survival is difficult and requires you to adapt and use whatever you’ve got available.
Sharks are one of the largest predators in the ocean, and they have no known predators – other than the Orca (killer whale). They’re popular antagonists for ocean-survival films, and have been since Jaws was released in 1975. The Shallows follows the story of a woman who goes on vacation and, while surfing ends up stranded in the ocean being circled by a hungry great white shark.
The film demonstrates several survival principles. Blake Lively’s character keeps her cool and stays alert. She also notices the warning signs of possible shark presence; when she spots the whale carcass she tries to get out of the water before the shark attacks. She’s also forced to adapt and use her jewelry (earrings, etc.) and surfboard to treat her wound.
13: Into the White (2012)
- Working together improves your odds of survival.
- Even if you’re on opposite sides of an issue; you can put your differences aside.
Into the White follows two American and two German pilots shoot each other down during the Second World War and must work together to stay alive – despite being on opposite sides of the war.
This is the perfect example of putting aside your differences for the sake of survival.
14: The Reef (2010)
- Stay with the group.
- Stay calm.
- Make sure that you have up-to-date equipment.
The Reef is a 2010 survival horror film that follows a group of five friends on a sailing trip. When their yacht strikes a reef, the keel is torn off and the yacht capsizes; leaving them stranded in the ocean.
Four of the five friends decide to swim a nearby island and set off, unfortunately, they soon find that they’re not alone. They are, in fact, being stalked by a hungry great white shark.
The group that leaves opts to stay together – for the most part – which provides a deterrent of sorts for the shark; it strikes when one of the friends separates from the others. They also do a fairly good job of staying calm while they travel (at least until the shark shows up). There’s also an equipment-based lesson shown by the group’s tracking unit.
When the yacht initially capsizes, one of the friends activates a beacon which turns out to be a futile gesture. The beacon in question is an older model and requires a plane to fly over in order to get the signal out. Don’t go into the wilderness with outdated or inadequate equipment.
15: Sully (2016)
- Being able to adapt to changes on the fly is a useful skill to have.
Based on a true story, Sully is a survival thriller film that tells the story of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River by pilot Chesley Sullenberger – nicknamed Sully.
The plane was supposed to fly from La Guardia Airport in New York to Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the plane struck a flock of birds which disables the engines. The pilots subsequently decided to ditch the plane in the Hudson River.
The film demonstrates a key aspect of a survival situation, your ability to work under pressure. Sully, in the film, has both engines on his plane disabled and he’s got 155 people on board. He must make decisions quickly and take control of the situation – which he does.
16: 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Play to your strengths.
- You can do more than you think.
- You can’t help everyone and be everywhere; pick your battles.
- Keep calm and organized to avoid mistakes.
10 Cloverfield Lane is…weird. The film follows a young woman who ends up trapped in a bunker with a paranoid prepper (played brilliantly by John Goodman) who tells her that the outside world is no longer safe. Of course, it’s not exactly safe inside either! Our leading lady must work fast to escape and find out what’s going on.
There are a few different lessons here. First off, play to your strengths. You’ll be surprised what you can do when pushed to your limits. That said, you won’t be able to be everywhere and help everyone – especially if you let your fears get in the way.
Fear is the mind-killer…yes, I just quoted Dune but it’s true. If you let your fears run wild, you’ll make mistakes and if you’re in a group that means everyone suffers for those mistakes.
17: The Perfect Storm (2000)
- Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork. You must put your differences aside, and work together in order to succeed.
- Never give up.
The Perfect Storm of 1991 was a tropical storm that absorbed Hurricane Grace and developed into an un-named hurricane itself and wrought havoc along the Massachusetts, Florida, and Nova Scotia among other places.
During the storm, a fishing boat called the Andrea Gail sank its way home to Gloucester, Massachusetts. In subsequent years, the sinking of the Andrea Gail became the focal point of a non-fiction book and, of course, a film.
The film follows the Andrea Gail and her crew as they set out for a late-season fishing trip and get caught in the middle of the titular storm.
The Perfect Storm did well financially when it came out, grossing $328.7 million at the box office on a budget of only $120 million but the reception was mixed.
Praise was directed at the special effects work, but the character development and drama aspects were criticized as being lackluster.
Throughout the film, we see the crew dealing with the storm and with each other and we get a couple of good lessons out of it. Two sailors on the boat have some bad blood between them but they put their differences aside when the storm hits, and they must work together.
We also see the importance of teamwork and determination from both the crew on the Andrea Gail and the Coast Guard rescue team.
18: Outbreak (1995)
- Pay attention to what you’re doing – ALWAYS!
Outbreak is a 1995 medical disaster film that follows a team of scientists as they try and stop an outbreak of a deadly virus. I can’t say much else because to do so would spoil the film for you if you haven’t seen it.
It received mixed reviews upon its release, and I can understand why. It’s sort of all over the place story-wise, some of the scenes are very over the top and, overall, there isn’t really a high level of realism but it’s a great film that warns you to always pay attention to what you’re doing – seriously, who accidentally sticks themselves with a contaminated needle? Who?
We’re also shown that in times of disaster, people will easily panic which can cause problems. Despite the over-the-top scenes and typical Hollywood stuff, the critics enjoyed the concept behind the film but felt it to be a little conventional.
There was also criticism leveled at the scientific side of things, the way the virus mutates, the way the cure is found and has immediate effect were all Hollywoodized.
Fun Fact: Outbreak was the fourth most streamed film on Netflix in March of 2020.
19: Contagion (2011)
- Have a bug out plan in place and practice it.
- Make sure you have adequate food, water, and other supplies.
- It doesn’t hurt to keep a weapon around.
Contagion follows the efforts of the CDC to combat a worldwide virus that’s communicable through respiratory droplets… sound familiar?
This movie was lauded for its realistic depiction of what a pandemic would look like, and how it would affect the people in each area. Scientific trial and error on vaccines, panic buying, looting, riots, this film pretty much has it all.
It did very well at the box office, grossing $136.5 million – a little more than double its budget of $60 million. Contagion also regained popularity last year when the COVID-19 lockdowns started.
20: The Book of Eli (2010)
- Make sure you know how to barter.
- Keep a reliable weapon on hand.
- Be wary of strangers.
The Book of Eli follows a man named Eli as he travels through a post-apocalyptic USA to deliver the very last copy of the New King James Version of the Bible to the West Coast. Along the way, he must contend with a variety of dangers to complete his mission.
In a world where the old dollar/currency system is worthless; everyone must barter to get the things they need. Of course, if you need to barter, you need to know how to barter for goods. Eli also must make use of weapons often and so a good weapon on hand is always good.
Finally, stranger danger! This movie has one of the best examples of stranger danger I’ve seen in a while. Eli and his traveling companion are invited to tea with two seemingly normal people…who later turn out to be cannibals. If that’s not motivation to stay wary around other people in a post-disaster landscape, then I don’t know what is!
21: Jungle (2017)
- Don’t blindly believe what you’re told.
- Don’t wander off into the wilderness without gear.
- Plan ahead, have backups in place so that you have a backup plan if the first one fails.
Jungle is a survival drama movie that recounts the story Yossi Ghinsberg’s experience being stranded in the Amazon Rainforest.
He and two friends joined up with someone who claimed to be a guide to go and visit an isolated native tribe. The long and short of it is that the group split up at a river with Ghinsberg, and his friend Kevin Gale headed downriver on a raft. The raft ended up capsizing, and the two friends were separated.
The most prominent lesson from this story is to not go off in the wild unprepared. Yossi and his friends were foreigners who didn’t know the area well and they ended up in trouble – their guide and the one friend were never found and Yossi himself was lost for three weeks with practically no supplies on hand.
22: The Edge (1997)
- Use what’s around you.
- Working together and staying calm increases your chances of surviving.
The Edge is a 1997 action/survival movie that follows two friends, Charles and Robert (Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin) as they survive a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness and now must contend with an angry Kodiak bear (Bart the Bear). They must put their differences aside and work together to survive.
The film was well-liked when it was released and I can see why, great performances, beautiful cinematography, and a great soundtrack make this one worth watching!
23: Lone Survivor (2013)
- Be aware of your surroundings and your weaknesses.
- Pay attention to the details of what’s happening around you.
Lone Survivor tells the true story of Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who was deployed into Afghanistan to capture a leader of the Taliban, Ahmad Shah. During the mission, Luttrell’s team was killed, and he was severely wounded.
As far as lessons go, the message of: “never give up” is prominently displayed in the way the SEALs just keep moving and doing what they must do. Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to the details.
24: North Face (2008)
- Surviving in the extreme cold takes careful preparation.
Two climbers compete to see who can climb the north face of the Eiger – the most dangerous section of rock face in the Bernese Alps. The film is loosely based on the story of Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser who with two others, attempted to climb the Eiger in 1936.
The weather at the time wasn’t particularly good and long story short, it didn’t go well for anyone involved. Still, check this one out if you like and see what you think of it.
25: Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
- Survival is complicated, you must take the time to learn about it and fail a few times first before you get it right.
- Getting good at survival takes time, you’re not going to turn into John Rambo the second you get out of your car and start up a hiking trail.
Robert Redford plays the role of a man who goes off to live in the mountains and, luckily for him, he finds a mountain man who teaches him how to survive out in the wild. He soon finds himself embroiled in conflict with a Native American tribe.
This is one of Les Stroud’s favorites because it realistically shows both the complexity of wilderness survival and the way isolation can affect a person living out in the middle of nowhere. The idea of living off the grid, away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities is appealing but it’s not easy. Johnson struggles for a while before he learns the needed skills and gets the hang of the survival game.
Jeremiah Johnson was released in December 1972 and made 14 times its budget of $3.1 million; grossing $44.7 million at the box office.
26: First Blood (1982)
- NEVER underestimate your opponent!
First Blood was released in 1982 and stars Sylvester Stallone in what’s arguably his best-known role as John Rambo.
Rambo is a Vietnam War Veteran with severe PTSD and when a small-town Sheriff’s department accidentally triggers a panic attack – of sorts – he escapes and injures a deputy or two in the process.
They subsequently try to hunt him down and stop him from hurting anyone else. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple as Rambo uses his knowledge of guerrilla warfare to his advantage, and the hunters are suddenly the hunted.
The key lesson here is to never underestimate your opponent. Your ‘opponent’ can be a random Joe on the street with whom you have a friendly chat, it can be a crazy maniac, or it can be nature (either weather or animals).
Regardless of its form, if you underestimate your opponent in any situation, it will come back to bite you. This is demonstrated clearly when Rambo gets the drop on the deputies.
They’re all talking about him and about previous hunts; they’re also poking fun at each other. Their minds are only half-focused on what they’re doing and who they’re looking for so they’re not paying enough attention to anything going on around them.
First Blood did well when it was released and spawned four sequels – each of which took on a more action-oriented approach. Still, this is a personal favorite of mine and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Well, there you go! There’s my list of the best survival movies to watch. I hope you enjoyed reading it and that you’ll enjoy checking out these movies when you have a chance. As always, I’d like to thank you all so very much for reading. Take care, and I’ll see you all for the next one.