The 21 Best Survival Movies of All Time

Before we rank the “best” survival movies, we should get definitional.

“Survival” can be as broad or as narrow a genre as one makes it. 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. Every movie about abuse, loss, grief, poverty—those can also be survival movies, though “survival” less existentially defined.

It’s obviously a wide genre, and we likely missed one or two or twenty-seven movies that could be on this list; we chose instead what we thought were some of the best of the sub-genres. Those genres: adventure survival, disaster survival, survival horror, post-apocalyptic survival, and real-life survival.

They come in the form of documents, animated features, summer blockbusters, and art house cinema. (Short films would probably fill up a whole other list.)

We tried to pick movies where “survival” is more narrowly defined. These are movies where the protagonist’s very life—and not just their means or mental stability—is under threat. The motivating tensions are basic, elemental: will they live? We’ve chosen films where this tension comes as a surprise, where the protagonist meets the existential threat unknowingly, and either alone or with a small group of companions. Storming a beach with an army under gunfire, while a threat to one’s life, is not “survival” in the way we are defining it. Receiving a mission that sends only two soldiers into the unknown, however—this drama can become “survival.”

We’re also favoring more modern films, if only for easier access to streaming, and also because we know we’re going to piss off some film purists anyway—so why not make our own rules?

These are the 21 best survival movies—or, at least, 21 survival movies we really like and think you should check out.

Let’s kick it off with a documentary—a documentary about in its purest form. Touching the Void reenacts the near-deadly Peruvian climb made by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. The film combines interviews from both climbers with real footage of other climbers attempting a similar feat. It is an ode to the human spirit and one of the craziest true stories of survival ever told on camera.

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Another true story, but this time in entirely dramatized form. The Impossible follows Spanish tourists María Belón and Enrique Álvarez who were vacationing with their two children in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Sometimes real life appears more unreal than the best fiction.

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Only loosely inspired by true events, The Revenant is our first example of what you could call “survival adventure”—where the stakes are higher and where character conflicts become especially contrived. The Revenant pits its protagonist against every possible existential threat in the frontier. Animals. Snow storms. Other men. Also, terrible hygiene.

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Then there’s “survival horror.” While there’s lots to chose from in a genre where torture porn and masked serial killing are now classics, we think A Quiet Place is one of the best modern examples of the genre. It’s a simple concept executed to perfection and one of the best movie theater experiences of the last several years.

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While we hesitated to put something like Utøya on this list, since “best” movies tends to imply movies that are enjoyable, we still feel it’s the strongest of its very tragic genre. Filmed in a continuous shot and from the fictional perspective of the victims of the Utøya summer camp mosque, Utøya is the kind of art that simply widens your humanity. It is the most terrifying and unsettling movie on this list.

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The film is a biographical drama retelling Aron Ralston’s 2003 climbing trapped accident, in which he found himself under a boulder. 127 Hours also makes real the price of survival, a consequence not every movie in the genre depicts.

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A man awakes to find himself buried in a coffin with only a lighter and some random pocket items. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Ropethe film is probably not recommended for the claustrophobic.

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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Our first war movie on this list focuses not on soldiers but civilians. Based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies follows a brother and sister escaping the fire bombing of their home, which left their mother dead. It’s just about one of the saddest movies you will ever see. But it’s worth one watch. One watch is probably all one can handle.

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We haven’t had a lot of comedies on this list, and while Swiss Army Man isn’t full comedy—in fact, it tears at you even harder than many “survival movies”—the film is still a knee-slapper. No genre is beyond fart jokes.

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Cast Away is maybe the most prototypical survival movie in the history of survival movies. One man. One island. One mission. It also features one of the most jarring return-to-reality moments in film. We will never look at a buffet the same way again.

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Like A Quiet Place, Gravity represents a simple concept perfectly executed. When making repairs to their space shuttle, two astronauts are sent hurtling into space by an asteroid. Every beat of this film is expertly directed—all for maximum survival suspense.

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In a similar fictional space as Gravity is Life of Pi, about a boy and a tiger stranded on a lifeboat. Part fantasy, part adventure epic, it’s one of the most unique films on this list and also one that won’t leave you terrified and sobbing. Well, maybe a little sobbing.

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Another survival adventure based on a novel, The Martian finds astronaut (and botanist!) Mark Watney trapped on Mars and then later attempting escape. Tonally, the film is similar to Cast Away with some much needed doses of humor and a plot structure more triumphant than tragic.

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Based on the tragic true story of Christopher McCandless who dropped everything, often literally, to travel to Alaska and survive on his own, Into the Wild has become a genre of its own, sometimes a pejorative analogy for unpreparedness, sometimes a cautionary tale. But the movie isn’t just straight heartbreak; Beyond the ultimate tragedy, it remains equally awe-inspiring.

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Back to the documents. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (both behind Free Sol, a film we would call “survival” if only climber Alex Honnold hadn’t knowingly and willingly put himself in danger) chronicle the rescue of the Thai soccer team who found themselves trapped in a cave network following floods. The film is gripping and inspiring in equal measure.

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1917 is a war movie in settings only. The cinematography, however, is pure suspense: two soldiers journeying across No Man’s Land to deliver a message on time before lives are lost. While their task is to deliver the note, the real mission is to survive.

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The Road will feel much like Grave of the Fireflies. Meaning: it’s gray and dark and infinitely depressing. Based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, The Road Finds a father and son trying to survive during an extinction event. It doesn’t get much more cheery after that.

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Like The Road, Mad Max: Fury Road finds humanity on the brink, a world reduced to a wasteland. unlike The Roadthat world is bright and vibrant and full of guys playing fire-shooting guitars on the front of speeding vehicles. The Road could have used that.

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Getting back into the survival horror genre, there’s 28 Days Laterthe film that inspired scenes in The Walking Dead and helped resurrect the zombie genre in contemporary horror. Survival here is more than simply one’s life; it’s one’s sanity, one’s humanity.

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The outbreak of war leads one man into hiding, fearing for his life as the opposition gains political power. He hides in a hole under his house, as his wife keeps his existence a secret above. One of the more uniquely structured movies on this list and worth a watch for anyone with a Netflix account.

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And finally, the ultimate survival topic: the survival of the human race. Children of Men imagines a world of mass infertility and population aging. Amidst the fallout, two people travel across a collapsing England toward species survival. It’s one of the most prescient and enduring films of the century.

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