The Most Realistic Survival Movies
There is a lot that goes into being a prepared survivalist, but chances are many people who are prepped and prepared have never actually been in a life or death scenario – or at least not the kind depicted in the movies and other popular media.
If you’ve not been trapped on a deserted island for months at a time, lost at sea in a broken sailboat, or completely out of your depth in the treacherous realms of the Amazon Jungle – congratulations, you’re a normal person! These scenarios are pretty rare and “unrealistic”, and so it can be difficult to try to prepare properly for them. However, you can still get a taste for these more outlandish situations through the medium of film. Survival experts are allowed to watch movies too! And there just so happens to be a whole subgenre of survival films that cater to our particular interests when it comes to survivalism.
But not all survival movies are created equally. Some are straight-up ridiculous, with premises that don’t make sense and survival tactics that are plain baffling (and likely to get you killed). A lot of survival movies won’t actually teach you anything about the horror and anguish of real-world survival.
Luckily for you, we’ve put together a list of the very best movies that also give you a reasonably realistic taste for what survival is like out there in the world (in the most extreme situations). Many of these movies are based on real events, or are based on books… which are based on real events. Keep in mind that a lot of these films are pretty much wilderness survival movies (as opposed to urban survival). There are exceptions, but it seems that the themes of man vs nature tend to generate more realistic survival situations than say, man vs zombie or man vs robot (I wonder why that is).
Let’s stop wasting time and get to it!
The Best Survival Movies: Our Top Choices
1. The Best Survival Movie (Maybe Ever): Cast Away
The classic comes first. Just about everyone on the planet (or at least in the US) is familiar with the 2000 classic “Cast Away”. the movie features Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee who ends up stranded on an uninhabited island and is faced with the daunting task of surviving. He has a volleyball, some issues with his teeth, and definitely some mental breakdowns along the way.
What makes this movie extraordinary, other than Hank’s star performance, is its immense attention to detail. While many details may have been embellished here and there, the dire realism of being stuck on a deserted island really comes forward through the movie. While the sandy beaches depicted in the movie may seem like idyllic vacations spots to most people, when it comes to actually surviving on one without any resources or help, it can get difficult very quickly..
Throughout the film, Hanks endures storms, total misery & hopelessness, and trial after trial just to survive. Even something as trivial (to actual survivalists) as fire and food turn into a desperate bid not to die. If you can take anything away from this movie, it is that survival is always a struggle, and mental fortitude is as important as any survival skills or knowledge that you have. There are many great lessons to be learned from Tom Hank’s character in Cast Away, and the movie is a fun, reasonably realistic depiction of what it looks like if a regular person with decent instincts were to be stranded in the wild with no companions.
2. What Not To Do in a Survival Scenario: Into the Wild
There is a lot that can be said about Into the Wild. While the movie is arguably just a pretty good rendition of the famous book by Jon Krakauer (many people would argue the book is better), Emile Hirsch does deliver a great performance, and the film does have some satisfying survivalist elements. For those who don’t know, Into the Wild is about a young man from a wealthy family who rages against the privilege he was born with and strikes out into the wilderness. He has arguably no training, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he wants to be a mountain man.
This movie is particularly relevant in these current times, which everyone wishing they could move into a mountain cabin and live “off the grid” – even people who really have no idea what they’re getting into. What the film shows underneath its surface is the utter futility of trying to survive without knowing your stuff. It’s not a good idea at all to just head off into the wilderness without some skill and knowledge. If you can get past the melodrama and see the movie for what it is, I would say the film is more of a warning of what not to do rather than a lesson of what to do.
This is definitely a good movie, and it does show how one man can survive (or can’t survive, as the case may be) in the middle of nowhere with just a handful of tools. But it also shows how complete ignorance can cause devastation in a survival scenario, and this is a strong motivation to be prepared! This movie really highlights how foolish it is to think that you’re ready to survive in the wilderness (see our section on survival in the wilderness here) without any training, preparation, or knowledge.
3. Post Apocalyptic Survival Movie: The Road
The Road is based on the famous novel from Cormac McCarthy. In both the movie and the book, the two main characters do not have names, they merely go by “the man” and “the boy”. In the film, the man is played by Viggo Mortensen, and he does a stunning job as always.
The story follows the father and his son while they roam through the bleak aftermath of a global catastrophe. While not directly showing any survival advice about what to do before a great calamity, it definitely shows the true horror of having to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A lot of preppers and survivalists think that a post apocalyptic scenario will be something like the Walking Dead – dangerous, but exciting. The Road shows something that’s closer to the truth – roaming through a wasteland is endless drudgery (while still being dangerous). It’s not as glamorous as many video games and TV series portrayed to be.
The movie is a great lesson in scrounging and scavenging. If you are looking for a bit of inspiration for what a real survival situation might look like after the world has ended, this is it. A lot of survivalists and preppers, especially beginners, romanticize what a major disaster or apocalyptic scenario would be like. The truth is, in any apocalyptic situation, most of us would die, many of our friends and family would die, and life would be an endless treadmill of either hiding out or looking for resources. It’s good to be prepared, but nobody should be hoping for an apocalyptic scenario. This movie demonstrates that very well.
Nobody knows exactly what it would be like, but this is definitely a great starting point for some do’s and don’ts of post-apocalyptic survival.
4. Based on a True Survival Story: Jungle
Jungle is a tale of survival in the realist sense. What I really love about this movie is its raw realism, and the fact that it is a true story. The entire movie is based on the adventure of an Israeli traveler named Yossi Ghinsberg and his unfortunate journey deep into the Bolivian part of the Amazon rainforest.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Yossi Ghinsberg in the movie, and he does a fabulous job of it. The adventure begins with Ghinsberg and his group of friends traveling into the jungle to locate a small tribe, but quickly descends into a horrifying bid for survival. Yossi Ghinsberg was actually a consultant for the movie, and so it gets many of the hardcore survival elements bang on. While it is apparent none of the boys on the adventure have any clue how to survive in the jungle, the film does a pretty good job of at least outlining what jungle survival is all about, and how the simplest thing, like sores on your feet, can very quickly turn into a life threatening situation.
If you want a realistic look at what being lost in a tropical jungle is all about, this is the right movie. It’s based on a true story, and the survivor who went through it all consulted with the director, so this has some of the most realistic survival elements of any film recently made. It also has one of the best “uh-oh” rafting trips I’ve ever seen. As a film, it’s only middling – Jungle was never going to win any Oscars – but if you’re interested in survival, there’s a lot of useful information that can be absorbed from watching this film.
5. Survival at Sea: All is Lost
We have covered the jungle, the post-apocalyptic wasteland, the deserted island, and now it is time for a movie about being lost at sea. This film only has one cast member. Robert Redford plays a man traveling through the Indian Ocean in his sailboat. After he wakes to find his boat being flooded by water due to colliding with a shipping container, everything goes wrong. What follows is a grim tale of survival at sea.
This movie gets points for realism. Rather than being a dull survival movie where the main actor is talking to himself, remembering past mistakes, and sitting around in a life raft waiting to die, this movie really shows what needs to be done for surviving at sea, and how horribly brutal it really is.
Robert Redford doesn’t even speak through the whole movie, except to grunt to himself every now and again. Watching this film is like watching an actual survival event on fast-forward. You get to see how quickly supplies can dwindle, the proper tools a seaman must use to try and navigate the open ocean, and what resources can be used for real survival when on the open sea. This movie was well-liked by critics, and it really is quite brilliant from both a survival and a film perspective. The one thing we will say about All is Lost is that it is neither a fun nor a relaxing watch. If you’re looking for a movie to watch on Saturday night to help you unwind, this movie probably isn’t it. However, if you’re interested in watching a pretty good representation of what it’s like to be lost at sea and fighting for your life, then you’ll like this one. It helps that Robert Redford’s performance is tremendous (even though he doesn’t actually have that many lines despite being the only cast member.
6. Political Upheaval: No Escape
This one is just a bonus. No Escape is an extremely tense survival thriller more centered around surviving a political uprising than surviving in a wilderness situation or an end of the world situation. The movie follows Owen Wilson as he and his family travel to Southeast Asia (destination unspecified surely for political reasons) for work. However, soon after their arrival, the country is thrown into complete chaos.
The rest of the movie follows Owen Wilson as he tries to escape a country that has exploded into madness overnight. While this may seem far-fetched, it really isn’t. A very similar thing happened in Cambodia in the 1970s and in Rwanda in the 1990s. Political uprisings happen all the time, and in a serious rebellion or catastrophic social situation, you could find your exotic holiday destination has turned into a death trap with no way out – and the friendly locals are suddenly out for blood!
The movie is actually a really good example of what could happen, how the local population could turn on you, and how desperately you need to get yourself and your family out of the country and to a safe location. I personally thought the movie was really well done, and you will likely enjoy it too.
A Great Survival TV Series: Survivorman
Survivorman was the original survival program. If you have ever wanted to know about how to survive in a legitimate situation where your life is in danger, forget about the other guy and watch Survivorman. Hosted by Les Stroud, a Canadian survival expert, he shows real-world situations through the eyes of a survivor.
For any who don’t know, each episode of Survivorman features Les Stroud by himself in a hostile environment trying to survive. He goes anywhere from the hot African desert to the frigid Canadian North, and he must survive on his own without a camera crew, without any help, and with only the normal tools a person would bring along. For example, surviving after your jeep breaks down in the desert by only using parts from the vehicle!
There is such a great wealth of information from his program that I cannot recommended it enough for anyone who wants useful tips on survival from a real expert. Most survival experts on TV do know their stuff, but the way that the shows are shot and the audiences they’re targeted to mean that even if the experts know what they’re doing, the situations they end up in and the actions they take aren’t all that realistic. Les Stroud and Survivorman are the exception to this.
The Best Survival Movie Documentary: I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash
Believe it or not, it is really difficult to find high quality documentaries about survival (or genuine survivalists). Most of the documentaries that do exist cast a negative light on survivalism, portraying preppers and survivalists are unhinged or paranoid. But this documentary, “I Am Alive,” is about the real events of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 that crashed back in October of 1972. This two-hour documentary is from the perspective of one of the survivors, Nando Parrado, and its details the 72 days he spent surviving after the crash. It also includes the details of his brutal 37-mile hike out of the mountains. This is the real deal – based on a harrowing real life survival situation where someone (literally) lived to tell the tale.
If you want a crash course in real survival, and how real people survived an exceedingly strenuous and difficult life-or-death situation, this is a great documentary to watch. There’s a lot to be learned, and it’s well made and entertaining to watch.
There are a few other great survival movies not mentioned on the list. For example, 127 hours is a great movie about a climber who gets stuck on the side of a cliff while rock climbing in Utah, and he’s forced to make some extremely difficult decisions in order to make it out alive. Life of Pi is also very good, but it is a little too similar to All is Lost – it’s also significantly less realistic and more fantastical (especially the tiger). The Martian is great but doesn’t have much to do with “realistic survival” since it takes place on the Moon. Deliverance is an iconic one from the 70s featuring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt, but there is quite of a bit of exaggerated violence.
Lord of the Flies is one of the best all-time survival flicks, but it has more to do with complex psychology, social structures, and how poorly humans treat each other than actual survival. There are also a lot of great military survival movies, from soldiers having to survive in the Vietnamese jungle to modern-day tales of survival in the Middle East – such as The Survivalist, Lone Survivor, Rescue Dawn, and The Way Back.
If you want something a little more on the silly side, check out Dawn of the Dead, which isn’t “realistic” at all because it’s a zombie movie, but is beloved by folks from all walks of life (including survivalists!)
If you were looking for a good survival movie to sit down and watch, hopefully now you’ve found one! We recommend all the movies on this list because they’re both reasonably realistic on the survival front, and they’re at least decent movies (some of them are great). Hopefully this doesn’t need to be said, but obviously just because you watched a survival movie doesn’t mean that you’re ready to strike out into the wilderness with just a knife. You can’t learn survival skills by watching movies – the best you can hope for here is to pick up on some broad concepts and ideas that might be applicable in real life.