Mankind has always been fascinated by our role in and conflict with the natural world. And, that means movies about dangerous animals, treacherous mountains, angry seas and foreboding deserts. Let’s rank the best; you can watch the winner right here.
Before there was Blackfish, there was this Jaws knockoff. It’s essentially the same plot as the shark movie, just set in the Arctic with an epic final showdown on an iceberg. Its portrayal of an Orca as a murderously insane killer is patently ridiculous, but somehow that, combined with the menace of the frigid arctic ocean just combines to make a fun, eminently watchable movie about men wearing rubber coats getting splashed in the face with cold water.
The prototypical man vs mountain movie has it all: a really tall mountain, avalanches, crevices, ropes, altitude sickness, buddies coming to each other’s rescue, the frozen corpse of a rich weekend warrior and even striking sherpas. What it lacks is good storytelling.
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33) The River Wild
Meryl Streep has never played a bigger badass, simultaneously defeating Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly and Idaho’s Salmon River. That there’s a cool dog, gorgeously shot scenery and high-budget film making just makes it all the better, but the pretty authentic rafting seals the deal.
32) The Perfect Storm
George Clooney makes some bad decisions in order to catch a few fish, forcing Marky Mark to perform some nautical heroics. Thankfully, they both die. A big special effects budget was largely applied to making giant waves and a big storm feel extra scary. Suspend your disbelief and you’ll be treated to one of the few films that’s managed to capture the power of the sea.
31) The Day After Tomorrow
Has another film ever cast nature as the bad guy more literally? It’s hard to get past the overly sensational and totally unbelievable weather phenomena, but if you can it’s a fun story about down parkas saving the day.
30) White Fang (1991)
Jack London’s classic tale of man-on-wolf love is here successfully interpreted by Ethan Hawke. They fight grizzlies, they fight dog fighters, they fight robbers and eventually live happily ever after, just the two of them, in the Yukon wilderness, away from people who judge their relationship unfairly. It’s basically my ultimate fantasy in movie form.
29) The Hunter
Willem Dafoe, who’s some sort of killer for hire, is despatched to the Tasmanian wilderness to find and bring back the last Tasmanian tiger. It’s actually a good story and the setting of this unfamiliar and beautiful environment is really neat.
28) The Grey
A well told and beautifully shot story about Liam Neeson trying to survive in an arctic forest, in winter, following a plane crash. In typical Hollywood fashion, the wolves are way bigger and way more aggressive than they are in reality, which all makes sense once you get to the ridiculously disappointing, overly intellectual plot twist at the end. Basically, stop watching 60 seconds before the end and you’ll be treated to the outdoors action flick you’re hoping for.
27) All Is Lost
Robert Redford runs into a jettisoned shipping container while on a solo sailing expedition, giving his boat a slow leak. This leads to a series of unfortunate events, the last of which is very misjudged signal fire that sends him plummeting into the ocean depths. It’s one of those laborious tales of persistence that’s actually a much more realistic portrayal of survival than all the overblown action flicks out there, but it’s also one of those movies in which you basically just stare at Redford while he doesn’t utter a single word for two hours.
26) The Call Of The Wild
Another Jack London dog tale, this time starring Clark Gable. Basically, best dog ever rescues his hapless human over, and over, and over, and over. Adults probably shouldn’t be this into films about animals.
25) Lord Of The Flies (1963)
Was Boy Scouts like this for you too? A plane load of schoolboys being evacuated from Fortress Britain during WWII is shot down and crash lands on a remote island. No adults survive and the kids learn through trial and error how to thrive in the wilderness. They also form their own social order, which is…less successful. One of the most critically acclaimed film adaptations of a book ever and enthusiastically endorsed by the author, William Golding. Here Piggy, Piggy, Piggy…
A woman who doesn’t know her shoe size sets out to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail to get over a drug addiction. It’s fun to see Hollywood so closely examine a pastime that so many of us grew up doing and still enjoy and it’s a beautiful look at the Sierra Nevada too. Single handedly responsible for thru hiking’s current popularity.
23) Kon-Tiki (2012)
The true story of Thor Heyerdahl’s incredible expedition to sail the Pacific in a balsa wood raft made using 1,500-year-old technology, thereby proving that Polynesia was settled by people from South America. One of the highest budget Norwegian films ever, it’s interesting and intelligent in a way only films from that country can be.
22) The Road
I don’t think anything else can totally capture the stark, but incredibly emotional nature of Cormac McCarthy’s most famous book, but this high-budget film puts forth a respectable effort. A man and his son wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland, struggling to survive as nature dies and human life dwindles. The sub-text is powerful argument for self-reliance while retaining compassionate humanity. Would someone please adapt Blood Meridian next?
21) The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)
An allied cargo plane crashes in the Sahara desert during WWII and the surviving passengers and crew have to figure out how to travel hundreds of miles across the barren desert to safety. Mechanical ingenuity ultimately overcomes killer nature, making this movie an engineer’s wet dream.
20) 127 Hours
James Franco gets really into self-mutilation while nuzzling up to a boulder. In all seriousness, it’s the true story of total badass Aron Ralston, who snapped his radius and ulna, then carved through the flesh of his forearm to remove the whole shebang and escape a tricky scenario. Think that put him off? He climbs rocks and mountains to this day.
19) Cast Away
Sort of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe tale, just with Tom Hanks as the protagonist and a volleyball as his man Friday. The prototypical desert island survival tale is full of the usual find water, find food, make shelter tropes, but is a fun watch regardless. One of those where you get to tell your girlfriend how you’d do differently and better the whole time. Or maybe that’s just Lara’s problem.
One of those great television mini-series the British put out. Kenneth Branagh plays Ernest Schakleton, who in 1914 embarked on a journey to cross Antarctica for the first time. The expedition was beset by disaster from the beginning and is one of the more compelling tales of human endurance (also the name of his boat) ever told.
17) The Bear
Not so much man vs wild as bear cub vs man. I loved this one as a kid, it’s amazing how compelling a film Jean-Jacques Annaud was able to make by editing together clips of a baby bear’s capers. You will cry.
Known more for its daring (for the time) portrayal of a man raping another man, Deliverance is actually a tale of city slickers going into the wild and being overwhelmed, then struggling to survive. One of Burt Reynolds’ finest roles.
The Japanese name translates more accurately to “South Pole Story,” and this movie is just that. In tells the story of Japan’s disastrous attempt in 1958 to send its own scientific expedition across Antarctica. They travel by dog sled, but are forced to call in a helicopter for rescue when the weather turns bad and have to leave the dogs behind. Nearly a year later the humans returned and found, unbelievably, two of the dogs still alive. The movie takes an educated guess at what it took for them to survive and what their plight must have been like.
14) Letter Never Sent
A good ol’ fashioned survival tale set in the boreal forests of Siberia. The Russian language film is one of the better meditations on the menacing power of nature ever made.
You’re still a little scared to swim in the ocean because of a movie that premiered way back in 1975. The shark is obviously massively exaggerated both in size, menace and intent, but it’s a fairly realistic story otherwise. As much about human personality when faced with adversity as it is a really big foam rubber monster.
11) Into The Wild
A city kid with issues decided he was going to be one with nature, had some fun, then made a bunch of really bad decisions and ultimately died just a few miles from civilization in Alaska. A cautionary tale, certainly, but also one that celebrates the allure of the wild and the benefits of risk taking.
10) Dersu Uzala
Akira Kurosawa’s first foreign-language film tells the story of a native trapper living in Russia’s far eastern wilderness; one of the most remote environments on earth. The movie was entirely shot on location in Siberia The story is told by a Russian explorer who befriended Dersu and lived for a time in the wilderness with him. One of those movies that’s all about the ills of modern civilization compared to simpler life outdoors.
9) Grizzly Man
Werner Herzog tells the tale of a crazy person who thought grizzly bears were his friend. Herzog delves deep into Timothy Treadwell’s soul, as only the German director can do, finding someone who means well, but is ultimately unable to accept reality. One of the reasons I like this one so much is because it demonstrates, through the real death of a real person, why an overly anthropomorphic and cutesy version of nature is ultimately very flawed. Nature is a force, not your cuddle buddy.
8) Aguirre: Wrath Of God
Herzog again. The story’s about conquistadors on a quest through the rain forest, but Herzog being the crazy person he is, decided to shoot the movie in linear order, as the production team travelled through the jungle themselves. The real ordeals they faced, or were forced to endure by Herzog, make up the film. And everyone goes fucking insane.
7) Rescue Dawn
Another Herzog! I don’t know how they all ended up grouped together like this. Here, Christian Bale escapes a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, fleeing through the jungle while being pursued by his captors. It’s hard to believe it’s a true story.
6) Jeremiah Johnson
Robert Redford learns the harsh life of a trapper in the Rocky Mountains during the middle of the 1800s. He starts off green, but after getting embroiled in conflict with the Crow, eventually emerges as a mythical warrior. It’s very ‘70s in its pace and political correctness, but is the epitome of the mountain man theme as it’s ever been realized by Hollywood.
5) The Edge
Anthony Hopkins vs Alec Baldwin vs Elle MacPherson vs a grizzly bear in the Alaskan wilderness. I’m pretty sure that would have been the pitch for the movie originally, is all you need to know about it and sums up the plot in totality.
In 1972, the Uraguayan rugby team was in a plane crash high in the Andes. They ended up eating the flesh of their dead teammates in order to survive the frigid conditions, which they did for two months. That’s the big selling point of the movie, but there’s much more to it as the protagonists learn to make do with their limited supplies and eventually send a team to walk 12 days to find help.
3) Touching The Void
“The most successful documentary in British cinema history,” (which is saying something) tells the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ disastrous attempt to climb a 6,000m peak in the Andes. Joe breaks his leg on the way down and Simon is lowering him on a rope when a storm hits and the pair suffer a fall. Simon is forced to cut the rope, presumably killing Joe. But, he survives the fall and crawls out finds Simon at base camp. The film combines interviews with reenactments to really immerse you in the story. Your heart will be in your throat the entire time.
2) The Way Back
During WWII a Polish soldier is captured by the Russians and sent to a gulag in Siberia. It’s more awful than you’d expect. So, he and a handful of fellow prisoners escape and walk 4,000 miles to freedom in India. Yeah. Did we mention this was a true story? The best thing about this film is how it identifies small problems like bugs and language barriers as being the primary and insidious challenges people face on such a journey. It’s very real, but also compellingly told. And they really emphasize how vital a good knife is, which I obviously liked.
1) Alone In The Wilderness
So the whole thing about all this overblown “Survival” nonsense is that it’s not only utterly unrealistic, it’s misleading. Mankind is totally capable of mastering nature, it just takes tools, know how and preparation. Which is what former Navy man Richard Proenneke was armed with when, in 1968, he set about building a primitive log cabin on a remote lake in Alaska, where he’d go on to live off and on for 30 years. As he was building it and creating life for himself in the wilderness, he carried along a camera and documented the whole thing. Want to see what it’s like to live outdoors and want to learn how to do something similar? Proenneke’s little film is as authentic a How To manual as you’ll ever find. Part 2, Part 3.
Part of the fun of all this is going to be you guys telling me what I missed and what I got wrong. So, tell us which movies belong on this list, which ones don’t, and why.
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