Watching Sandra Bullock’s astronaut struggle to survive the merciless vacuum of space in Gravity and Robert Redford’s old man versus the sea in All Is Lost reminds us of other films featuring characters greatly boned by circumstance. While there is no shortage of films featuring stranded individuals struggling to survive (The Grey, Pitch Black, Alive, etc.), some films stand out for the almost absurd degree to which the deck is stacked against the main character.
The films on this list feature solo (and occasionally paired) characters either completely, or virtually, cut off from assistance and solace from an outside world (itself either literal or figurative). It excludes the “ten little Indian” school of horror films (“I’ll go along outside and investigate that noise!”), and the entries in general carry with them a degree of relatable psychological horror, if not out-and-out phobia triggers. Finally, in general, such movies feature an overwhelmingly hostile or otherwise damaging environment. Be it measured in seconds, hours or days, this environment will destroy anyone not constantly occupied with preserving his or her own life.
(Note: In the case of recent films, spoily plot details are avoided.)
Film and literature have plenty of shipwrecked characters struggling to survive on a deserted island. What distinguishes Tom Hanks’ character from Robinson Crusoe and others is the isolation (though, technically, Crusoe logs about the same amount of solo island time as Cast Away’s grounded FedEx employee). Noland doesn’t even get voyeuristic interaction with other humans—Crusoe had visiting cannibalistic islanders to observe, free Friday from, and eventually, slaughter. (Oh, you murderous representative of a colonial power, you!) Noland gets a bloody volleyball and one unopened package that absolutely, positively won’t get there for four years.
Oh, murderous elements. Fire burns. Water drowns. Air hurls flying sharks at you. More often playing a supporting role, earth relies on the others for dramatic effect. It shakes; fires break out. It shimmies; dams burst. Its signature move—the engulf—lacks much of the inherent drama of a ravenous forest fire, a skyscraper-high tidal wave or a monstrous twister. Nonetheless, the fear of being buried alive, of having tons of dirt pressing down upon you—that’s the stuff of which debilitating phobias are made. Just ask ad exec Jackson Alder (Neil Hopkins) or Iraqi-based civilian truck driver, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds). Whether trapped by mudslide or kidnapped and buried by insurgents, both films bring home the claustrophobic terror of potential death by dirt.
Consider it a common theme in this list (and the dominant one in survival films in general): Mother Nature will. Mess. You. Up. Sure, it may take the titular “perfect storm” in Wolfgang Peterson’s 2000 film to do away with George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and a crew of experienced fishermen, but a solitary human? Gravity and a rock will suffice. Danny Boyle’s cinematic recreation of the near-fatal experience of canyoneer Aron Ralston (James Franco) may be billed as a triumph of human will, but it’s also a reminder: Gravity. And a rock.
Another phobia trigger of a film, Open Water tells the tale of two scuba divers accidentally left behind by their diving group. It turns out that floating in the midst of an immense body of salt water presents a rich selection of possible deaths: shark, dehydration, exposure, shark, drowning, shark. Like many of its type, Open Water owes much of its psychological horror to the extent that it, or something like it, could happen to any of us (who scuba or spend time in big water). Worse, something like it probably did happen to Tom and Eileen Lonergan, the couple upon whose story Chris Kentis’ film is loosely based.
If Open Water shows an audience how terrifying it can be to be cast adrift in the middle of a large expanse of water, this Robert Redford-helmed release serves as a reminder that being on a boat isn’t necessarily all that safe, either. Watch them as a double feature—heck, throw in Cast Away for giggles—and you might just decide it’s best to take your chances with gravity and rocks.
Steven Spielberg’s classic might seem like a heartwarming tale of friendship and childhood innocence—if you’re a human. For the titular character, however, it’s a harrowing tale of survival. Abandoned on an alien planet, our little telekinetic xeno-botanist faces a cadre of hostile, dissection-prone adults and swiftly deteriorating health (due either to the prolonged exposure to Earth’s atmosphere, debilitating homesickness or both). On the plus side, three humans at their least powerful stage of development want to help the little guy, who looks like a shriveled penis. Great. Just great.
Ah, the exhilaration one feels when presented with a breath-taking view of truly majestic mountains! What’s that … a storm is raging? Well, that probably detracts a bit. And you’ve broken your leg? Ouch. And your climbing partner has just decided to sever the rope from which you’re dangling, and you’re plunging into a dark crevasse as a result? Okay, strike that whole “exhilaration” part, and um, good luck?
Just when you think nothing does suffocation like earth and water, here comes the merciless vacuum of space! In fact, short of submersion in a fresh lava flow, vat of hydrochloric acid, or inner-city Detroit, it’d be tough to find an environment more hostile to human life than outer space, especially when one is stuck, as Bullock’s character is, outside her ship.
This 1971 anti-war film directed by Dalton Trumbo (who wrote the 1938 book, as well) flips the script of the stranded genre. Protagonist Joe Bonham isn’t isolated from others due to distance or inhospitable environment—in fact, he’s surrounded by people. Unfortunately, a horrific war injury—the loss of limbs, eyes, ears, nose and mouth—has rendered him stranded in his own mind (as well as compelling fodder for the Metallica song, “One”). In a contest of “I’d sure hate to be that guy,” Joe Bonham wins, hands—and pretty much everything else—down.
Granted, Newt (Carrie Henn) is a minor character in James Cameron’s 1986 classic, but her particular straits are so dire, she makes the list thanks to the sheer piled-on terror of her circumstances. Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there’s a riveting movie in which a little girl with mad duct-scurrying skills survives for months after watching her parents and every other human get killed (or worse) by predatory aliens. (Also in this world—Alien 3 never happened.)
Robert Neville (I Am Legend), Sam Bell (Moon), Pi Patel (Life of Pi), Gerry & Gerry (Gerry)
What are some other films with truly stranded and profoundly screwed protagonists?