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Where the Wild Things Are: The Best Man vs. Nature Movies

Where the Wild Things Are: The Best Man vs. Nature Movies

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It’s like a bad nightmare: Being stranded in the wild with scant resources and no guarantee of survival, your very existence hanging in the balance. What can you eat? How do you make it out alive? And—once all your social and cultural guideposts are stripped away—how do you manage to hang on to your humanity? This harrowing scenario has provided grist for the imaginations of many moviemakers over the years.

In The Grey, the latest man vs. nature movie to hit theaters, Liam Neeson stars as the leader of an oil drilling team that must struggle for survival after a plane crash leaves them stranded in the harsh and wintry Alaskan wilderness. Not helping matters is the nearby pack of hungry wolves, which views the humans as both intruders and the main course on their dinner menu.

With The Grey coming to theaters today, we thought it’d be a perfect time to take a look back at some of the most thrilling man vs. nature movies from the past 40 years.

Walkabout (1971)
directed by Nicolas Roeg

This odd, beautifully shot film, loosely based on the novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall, takes place in the Australian outback. In it, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg, son of the director) are forced to fend for themselves in the desert after their father kills himself on a picnic outing. After several days, the weakened siblings encounter a young Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a “walkabout” (a ritualistic separation from his tribe), who teaches them how to survive in the wild. With its slow pacing and minimalist dialogue, the arty Walkabout is definitely an acquired taste, but its lush setting and beautiful visuals (Roeg, who also shot the film, was previously a cinematographer) make it an unforgettable tale of isolation, survival and friendship.

Deliverance (1972)
directed by John Boorman

In John Boorman’s masterful Deliverance, the human threat proves just as dangerous as nature. Based on James Dickey’s acclaimed novel (which Dickey adapted himself), the film follows four Atlanta businessmen (played by Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) on a white water rafting trip in the remote Georgia wilderness. Suffice it to say, things don’t go according to plan, as a pair of backwoods hillbillies proceed to turn the city boys’ weekend getaway into the trip from hell. The movie suggests that, in the untamed wilderness, any of us is capable of becoming a beast. Featuring excellent performances from the four leads, dynamic camerawork (much of the movie was shot on the Chattooga River), an incessantly catchy theme song (“Dueling Banjos”) and one of the most disturbing rape sequences ever filmed (“Squeal like a pig!”), Deliverance is a true American classic.

Never Cry Wolf (1983)
directed by Carroll Ballard

Never Cry Wolf dramatizes the true story of a government biologist, Farley Mowat (Charles Martin Smith), who is sent to the Canadian tundra to collect evidence that vicious wolves are causing harm to the dwindling caribou population. During his time in the uncompromising, isolated Arctic wilderness, Farley (who possesses no survival skills to speak of) comes to realize that the old wolf rumors are mostly untrue; in fact, the wolves are not malicious killers, but rather skillful providers, devoted protectors of their young and beneficial to the environment. Essentially, the story is the antithesis of The Grey, in which the wolves are portrayed as big, cold-hearted baddies. Smith, the only actor onscreen for most of the film, gives a passionate performance as he comes to realize that it is the humans who pose the greatest threat to the land… and to the wolves. Filmed entirely on location, Never Cry Wolf is the story of one man’s determination to get to the truth as he struggles to survive in alien territory.

Alive (1993)
directed by Frank Marshall

Talk about a horrible situation… Alive details the true story of an Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the Andes after a plane crash. After two months of being trapped in the freezing cold, their meager rations having already run out, the remaining survivors must resort to desperate measures in order to stay alive: Eating the flesh of those who died in the crash, many of whom were their close friends and family members. Luckily, the story does have a hopeful ending, as two of the passengers are able to escape the mountains and alert the authorities after a 12-day trek. Ultimately, 16 people survived the crash, while 29 died. Though the subject matter could have become a lurid, unbearably bleak film, Alive approaches events from a more hopeful perspective, focusing on the unwavering bravery of the survivors and their gritty determination to survive against incredible odds.
The Edge (1997)
directed by Lee Tamahori

In this thrilling adventure, two men—refined billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) and the sleazy photographer Bob Green (Alec Baldwin), who is sleeping with Charles’ much younger wife—become closer than they ever imagined after their private plane hits a flock of geese in the North American wilderness and nosedives into a lake, killing the pilot. Charles and Bob survive and become unlikely allies during their struggle to be rescued. The situation becomes even more dire when they realize a vicious bear—played by Hollywood vet Bart the Bear (White Fang, Legends of the Fall)–has been stalking them. Though The Edge didn’t fare well with critics, this underrated, entertaining film is well worth checking out. Hopkins and Baldwin are both at the top of their game and are greatly aided by David Mamet’s witty, surprisingly funny script.

Cast Away (2000)
directed by Robert Zemeckis

Tom Hanks received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his brave performance in this gripping, unpredictable adventure. Hanks stars as Chuck, a workaholic FedEx employee who gets stranded on a deserted tropical island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific. Chuck spends four years on the island in total isolation, during which time he undergoes physical and emotional transformations. His only companion is an inanimate object: A Wilson Sporting Goods volleyball that he names, appropriately enough, Wilson. Chuck’s relationship with Wilson, which he treats like a living person and frequently talks to, becomes surprisingly touching over the course of the film. It’s pretty much impossible not to root for Chuck during his extraordinary journey as he manages to defy the odds and, due to his persistence and undying hope, escape the island and return to society. Thanks to Hanks’ intimate, captivating performance and Zemeckis’ surefooted direction, Cast Away succeeds at being both a whirlwind roller coaster ride and an emotionally satisfying journey.

Into the Wild (2007)
directed by Sean Penn

Unlike most of the characters on this list, the main character in Into the Wild actually wants to live alone in the wilderness, though the end result of free spirit Chris McCandless’ journey is nothing less than tragic. Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild follows Chris (Emile Hirsch) as he decides to abandon his material possessions and hitchhike across the country to live in the Alaskan wilderness. During his travels, he encounters a variety of people—played by Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart, Vince Vaughn and a heartbreaking, Oscar-nominated Hal Holbrook, among others—who lend direction to his life. With its lush landscapes and meditative tone, the film expertly captures the beauty of nature, though writer-director Penn was sure not to sentimentalize the tragic end of Chris’ young life. Ironically, he died doing what he loved most: Eking out a solitary existence in the harsh, uncompromising wild.

127 Hours (2010)
directed by Danny Boyle

Much like Into the Wild’s McCandless, mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a free spirit who loves to explore the wilderness in solitude… though his harrowing story, brought to life in 127 Hours, has a much more hopeful ending. Based on his autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 Hours sees Aron become trapped in the narrow passage at the bottom of a canyon when a huge boulder comes loose and crashes down on his arm. He quickly realizes that no one can hear his cries for help and that his meager supply of food and water means his chances of survival are near zero. He begins recording a video diary on his camera and comes to the conclusion that he must sever his crushed arm if he wants to live. After five days, he gathers enough will and determination to cut off his arm using a dull knife (one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in all of movie history) and is able to make his way out of the canyon. Ralston’s courageous story of survival was a success with both critics and audiences, picking up six Oscar nominations, including Best Actor and Best Picture.

Have a favorite man vs. nature movie not discussed above? Let us know in the comments!

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