Arctic—the new movie directed by Brazilian filmmaker and musician Joe Penna—has clomped into theaters after raving reception at Cannes and Sundance. The film’s frontman is actor Mads Mikkelsen, the tall, enviably-banged Danish star who simultaneously exudes grit, sophistication, decency, and the aroma of cedar leaves. He’s trapped in the arctic after a helicopter crash. It’s real cold. There are bears and monster blizzards. Even for a fellow like Mikkelsen, the odds of survival are grim.
Arctic belongs to a classic yet undervalued genre that we’ll call Modern Man Survives In The Wilderness. What makes this genre different from a frontier survival epic like The Revenant is simple: the characters who find themselves lost in the great outdoors are out of their element. They’re scientists, executives, doctors, tourists—they’re not the kind of people who already know things like How To Skin A Squirrel or How To Build A Wind Shelter From Pine Boughs. When they get hurt, we feel every blow, and when/if they get rescued, our spirits shoot through the roof.
The essential Modern Man Survives In The Wilderness film is both a humbling beatdown and an affirmation of man’s persevering strength. These movies make you want to burrow into a mountain of goose down blankets and run a marathon, simultaneously. And Arctic is exactly this—incredible but exhausting. If you’re going to watch, you’ll want to mentally prepare by experiencing the genre for yourself. Here are five grueling and highly-underrated survival movies to get you started:
Letter Never Sent (1960)
A team of geologists embarks on a diamond expedition into the Siberian wilderness. What could go wrong? Everything. A forest fire cuts the adventurers off from their canoes, a doomed love triangle germinates within the co-ed group, and their two-way radio stops broadcasting but keeps picking up breathless pep talks and exaltations from their comrades back in civilization. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov and shot in black and white—which makes the boreal woods of Siberia look like a bristling ocean—Letter Never Sent is a dark, brooding film that doubles as a subtle parody of Soviet Union ideals like altruism and resolve. These ideals are tirelessly upheld by the lost adventurers, even as they wander deeper into the wild and find themselves increasingly removed from society. There’s the human spirit, and then there’s the fucking forest. Letter Never Sent is about the gulf between those planes of existence.
The Grey (2011)
Yes, this is the movie where Liam Neeson goes mano-a-mano with wolves in the Alaskan tundra, and no, it’s not a joke. The Grey, directed by Joe Carnahan, is about what happens when a bunch of dudes who’ve succumbed to toxic masculinity—in this case, a bunch of oil drillers who’ve been drinking and brawling themselves toward death at the ass end of the world—are stripped down to their most base selves. Neeson, a sharpshooter who protects the oil men from wildlife, is the guy you want to have on hand when your plane crashes in Alaska—even when shrouded in anger and grief. (His wife has left him recently.) The Grey is less about the wolves and more about the specter of death that stalks each of the men. But the wolves are fucking badass too.
You’re on a plane that crashes onto a glacier in the Andes, and you survive. There’s no food and your strength is fading. Could you bring yourself to eat your dead seatmate? That’s what Frank Marshall’s Alive explores with surprising empathy. Based on the true story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which was carrying a rugby team before it crashed in the mountains, Alive is about not only the Donner Party-esque brutalities of survival but the bond that grows between survivors. The terror and angers that initially afflicts the rugby players and their families—one of them tells a dying, moaning woman to shut up early in the film—morphs into a gallows love and humor that transcends the awfulness of their situation. “If I do die, and you don’t eat me, I’ll come back and kick your ass,” one of the rugby players says to his friends. I’m not crying. You’re crying
Wilson jokes aside, Robert Zemeckis’s Castaway is a surprisingly haunting movie about what it’s like to be alone on a deserted island for a very long time. Casting Tom Hanks—a man not known for quiet performances—as the titular castaway is ingenious. Watching him suffer and stave off insanity on the island after his plane crashes into the Pacific is an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not an experience to be taken lightly. By the time Hanks knocks out an abscessed molar with a rock and an ice skate, you know you’re in a movie where anything could happen. This gives Castaway a sense of danger and mortality that’s rare in studio films—at least, until the final 20 minutes, which you should honestly just skip. I mean, they feed the guy sushi after he’s lived off raw fish for years!
True story: I once worked as a wilderness hostel manager. Part of my job was offering trail advice and helping hikers who got lost or hurt. No film in recent memory better depicts how adventurous urbanites get into trouble outdoors than Backcountry, a tense Canadian thriller from Andrew MacDonald. It stars Missy Peregrym, the rebel gymnast from the highly underrated Stick It, and takes place in the mountains of Ontario and British Columbia where a couple of hikers from Toronto set out on a camping trip without a map and get lost. Oh, and there’s a bear attack that makes the one in The Revenant look like a friendly tussle. (Two words: “exposed skull.”) It caught me off guard nearly as much as it blindsides the hikers themselves.
Arctic is out now in selected theaters.
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