The Revenant is arriving just in time to bring a little misery to your Christmas. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey called the film an “endurance test,” and whether you’re into that or not, it seems clear that the film’s aim — with Emmanuel Lubezki’s trademark vertiginous cinematography, its bold running time, its ballyhooed bear-maulings, and all the accompanying press about an excruciating production process — is total survival-narrative immersion.
Survival films, it seems, often go the extra mile to make audiences feel that they, themselves, are surviving something, depicting harsh conditions and injuries with such detail as to bridge the gap between audience and character. (Recall reports of people fainting during Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of arm-horror, 127 Hours.) Often combining nature’s indifference with the dubiousness of human loyalty in harsh conditions, these films offer up a very specific brand of psychological horror.
And because, through their sadistic attention to sensory detail, they can seem in competition to see which film can make audiences feel the most like they’re truly physically and emotionally enduring something awful, this list below uses an Awfulness Points system (the awfulness of the danger, the awfulness of the company, the awfulness of the sensations depicted, and then the total awfulness) to rank the awful conditions in ten nature-survival movies on an ascending scale of awfulness.
10. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)
Wild is really on the cusp of being a nature-survival tale, in that a great deal of it is about exalting nature as the one means of surviving one’s own inner demons. The past almost broke Reese Witherspoon’s character, based on author Cheryl Strayed; nature, however, only breaks her toenail, as depicted (gruesomely, despite it just being a toenail) in the first scene. The beauty of the movie is that nothing traumatic actually happens out in the wild — it’s all a matter of physically moving foreword to shake off a traumatic past. Here, nature is alien and thought-provoking, but not so adversarial. And since people hike the Pacific Crest Trail as a matter of recreation, this ruminative film depicts one of the least-awful encounters one could hope to have onscreen with nature.
The Awful Danger: 3/10 (Cheryl knows what she’s doing)
The Awful Company: 5/10 (On one’s own with one’s own thoughts — which can be awful, but also epiphanic)
The Awful Sensations: 2/10 (Broken toe, cold weather, food shortages — Cheryl can handle it)
Total Awfulness: 10/30 (Not so awful)
9. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Despite its depiction of the nagging potential of falling into the void and having your corpse float around in space for an eternity, Gravity’s place is towards the bottom of this list. For within the survival narrative of this stranded-in-space cinematic marvel with a sitcom script (“I hate space!”), we’re told that the astronaut dies and the biomedical engineer survives. So, for (presumably) non-astronauts like us, if we were to project ourselves into this script/space, chances of survival within this plot line would look pretty good. Of course, witnessing as George Clooney get subsumed by space would be harrowing, and having to actually live Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography nauseating. But all that fetal floating could, as the film’s symbolism glaringly emphasizes, actually facilitate a personal rebirth. Given Gravity‘s final moments — an ultimate celebration of, well, gravity and personal groundedness (set to an inspirationally earthy score!), the whole journey could be seen as a form of extreme self-help — a slightly wilder Wild, if you will.
The Awful Danger: 5/10 (You’d think it would be more awful, but one out of two of the main characters makes it home alive — so space is clearly easy!)
The Awful Company: 1/10 (There’s nothing awful about George Clooney, except a slight tendency towards astronautsplaining)
The Awful Sensations: 8/10 (A lot of jostling, plus the whole simultaneous claustrophobia/agoraphobia thing can’t be fun)
Total Awfulness: 14/30 (Almost halfway awful… but since it ends in a rebirth, not so awful!)
8. Cast Away (dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Not only does Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland have to live through a plane crash — he also has to endure the aftermath of being stranded on an island for years, famously speaking to a volleyball as a symbol of the tenacity of the human spirit. Wilson is indicative of all of the delusions we’ll create to make it through life: because Chuck is able to create such delusions, his experience manages to be, yes, awful, but perhaps a little less so than others’ who lack volleyballs/imaginations.
The Awful Danger: 9/10 (Though Chuck survives, the whole plane crash + years of isolation makes the chances of doing so slim, and when he gets back to society he’s found that his funeral already took place a long time ago, as no one expected he would have made it)
The Awful Company: 5/10 (Whether you’d consider a ball good or awful company really says a lot about you, but because it is objectively neutral company, this rating seems accurate)
The Awful Sensations: 6/10 (Though much of what he goes through is surely awful, Chuck also does get to feel the catharsis of spearing fish, growing out a beautiful blond mane he can shake around in the island breeze, and wearing as little clothing as necessary to make Hollywood audiences comfortable. He’s basically getting years of resort treatment for free)
Total Awfulness: 20 (Somewhat awful)
7. Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn)
This could have been a film like Wild — where a character seeking solace in nature finds solace in nature and then returns to society when they feel like it. For much of the film, Christopher McCandless is enjoying himself, and in fact thinks he’s overcome the material desires that tyrannize his fellow humans’ existences. But then loneliness and fear strike — and suddenly this becomes a nature narrative one certainly wouldn’t want to experience, both existentially (due to the sudden realization that rejoining society is not a matter of choice, and that nature makes its own decisions) and physically (in what ensues after this realization).
The Awful Danger: 10/10 (This rating may be something of a spoiler — it gets a top score in this category because the character’s surroundings seem comparatively innocuous for most of the movie, making its sudden acknowledgement of nature’s indifference is harder to stomach)
The Awful Company: 3/10 (Christopher meets some lovely, non-awful people along the way)
The Awful Sensations: 9/10 (Let’s just say that what he ultimately goes through is painfully gradual enough that he’s able to write about it)
Total Awfulness: 22 (Pretty awful, mostly because of how the un-awful setup leaves us unprepared for awfulness)
6. 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)
A story that hinges largely on a man’s decision to self-amputate while trapped beneath a boulder, 127 Hours is ultimately revolting and inspiring. Though you wholeheartedly wouldn’t want to be Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) while watching the movie, you might aspire to be like Ralston as far as will and resolve are concerned.
The Awful Danger: 8/10 (It’s obviously dire — it’s his arm or his life)
The Awful Company: 4/10 (Though the fact that memories stampeding back suggest he’s on the verge of dying and are thus of course emotionally fraught, the memories themselves are not bad company at all — and ultimately it is his recollections of his life that lead to his resolution to perform a startlingly complex self-amputation)
The Awful Sensations: 10/10 (As mentioned, it’s a startlingly complex self-amputation)
Total Awfulness: 22/30
5. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat is perhaps a clue as to what Life of Pi would look like without the allegorical tiger. This WWII-set survival (well, survival for some) story shows the interesting intersection of societal structures like nationality, class, and race (with which the film, made in 1944, certainly doesn’t do the best job) within a genre/place that might otherwise erase or reform such structures as a matter of pure, animal survival. For the most part, everyone gets along swimmingly — at least until a couple of them get along drowningly.
The Awful Danger: 8/10 (Limited supplies, full but tiny boat, open seas that also happen to be a war zone)
The Awful Company: 6/10 (Sure, there’s a secret German aboard and this leads to some issues — namely drownings — but overall it’s impressive how some people aboard attempt to work together, at least before becoming frustrated by and occasionally murdering each other)
The Awful Sensations: 9/10 (Y’know, usual shipwreck stuff — dehydration, gangrene, delirium, etc.)
Total Awfulness: 23
4. The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)
Given that this film (and the far better Cormac McCarthy novel it’s based on) takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where all vegetation is ash and all food canned unless it’s the human meat being eaten by cannibals run amok, this almost takes the canned cake for nightmare nature survival scenario you wouldn’t want to be a part of. But its core story of parental love makes it both more harrowing and more hopeful.
The Awful Danger: 10/10 (The world has actually ended. Normally, survival stories entail characters longing to return to a safer place – but that doesn’t exist here. Even if you “make it,” the question of what such a thing as “making it” means lingers)
The Awful Company: 5/10 (It’s hard to tell whether to read this story as a testament to a father’s undying compassion towards his son or an interrogation of the sometimes-nonsensical will to perpetuate the human race despite various forms of adversity. Either way, since The Road is constantly pondering whether love in the face of complete tragedy is worse than the absence of love, it seems fair to give this an even 5).
The Awful Sensations: 9/10 (All canned food. Forever)
Total Awfulness: 24
3. Life of Pi (dir. Ang Lee)
The awfulness of the experience of Pi in Life of really, as the movie so bluntly states, depends how you choose to live your life — believing in myth or stringently living in a world of harsh realities. Are we to believe this is really the story of maintaining a strangely balanced relationship with a tiger while stranded on a lifeboat that eventually lands on a fantastical, carnivorous island teeming with meerkats? Or is it something far darker than this already dark fable?
The Awful Danger: 10/10 (Whether or not the danger is coming from a tiger or… let’s just say, a “not-tiger,” the circumstances are completely dire — and anyone who thinks “tiger” sounds more dangerous than “not-tiger” hasn’t seen this movie.)
The Awful Company: 8/10 (Mostly awful regardless of whether you believe in the mythological version of the story or in the harsher reality, though the former does become more symbiotic)
The Awful Sensations: 7/10 (Awful — because of the whole dehydration and starvation thing — but so, so pretty, because of Ang Lee’s fantastical glow-in-the-dark-whale-thing!)
Total Awfulness: 25/30 (Even the myth — or is it?! — told for self-preservation is harrowing)
2. Deliverance (dir. John Boorman)
Even after the survivors of this canoeing-trip-gone-terribly-awry (due to both intense rapids and traumatizing encounters with mountain people) venture back into society, memories of what went down continue to haunt them. Between being bashed into rocks, humiliated, stabbed, and raped by people living in the Georgia mountains and then doing some murdering themselves, the protagonists undeniably have one of the most horrific cinematic canoeing stories out there. (Even if there actually were a genre of horrific cinematic canoeing stories, this would probably still be the worst).
The Awful Danger: 9/10
The Awful Company: 10/10
The Awful Sensations: 10/10 (These men are subjected to just about every form of bodily harm imaginable)
Total Awfulness: 29/30
1. Open Water (dir. Chris Kentis)
The upside to living the narrative of Open Water could be getting closer to your significant other than you’d ever expected. You’d share a horrific scuba experience — but at least you’d share it with someone you love, so that you’d later be able to laugh it off at parties. The downside is that you wouldn’t be able to later laugh it off at parties, at least not as a whole person with one of those body things, because you’d have become flesh crumbs. As would your spouse. So your flesh-crumbs would have to be pretty chill about the whole being flesh-crumbs thing to laugh it off at parties. And the transportation of the flesh-crumbs to whatever party this is might be difficult — as would convincing someone to send you, flesh-crumbs — an invitation.
The Awful Danger: 10/10 (It’s water. It’s full of sharks. It’s seemingly infinite. Awful.)
The Awful Company: 10/10 (It seems half good and half awful — at least you’re with someone dear as you potentially await awful things! But then when the awful things do actually happen, having to watch them happen to that someone dear would, unless you’re selfish and awful yourself, be more awful than if they’d never been there)
The Awful Sensations: 10/10 (Treading water for more than ten minutes sucks. Then there’s the shark thing. This is truly awful).
Total Awfulness: 30/30