'Gravity' vs. 'All Is Lost' vs ...'After Earth'? Determining the Most Harrowing Survival Film of 2013

The unofficial theme of some of this year’s biggest blockbusters has been survival with a capital S. But while it’s easy enough to draw parallels between Sandra Bullock being lost in space with Robert Redford being lost at sea, there’s a whole fertile land of other super-survival films out there to throw into the mix. In the case of these six films, nature is the principal enemy (and, in one case, nature has gone totally mad, M. Night Shyalmalan style), but nothing is as vicious as the human soul itself.

Purely from a cinematic standpoint, the year 2013 will inevitably be remembered for its many tales of wild survival, dire consequences, and situations so harrowing that they render statements like “I would not want this to happen to me” essentially moot. But in a year of adrift souls and bodies, which film will go down as the most harrowing of the harrowing? Using our scientifically arbitrary points system, we will arrive at the objectively correct answer.



John Curran’s Mia Wasikowska-starring film bowed at the Venice Film Festival back in August, and it’s recently shown at both Toronto and Vancouver, though it’s currently without a U.S. release date (neutral, because this film is great and deserves to pop up at a theater near you sooner rather than later).

Based on the true-life adventures (10 points) of Robyn Davidson, the film follows her lone attempt (50 points) to cross the deserts (5 points) of Western Australia on foot (15 points) with nothing but her beloved dog (5 points) and four camels she trained herself while living in a squat in the middle of Australia (10 points). Davidson set out on the journey for her own edification (15 points), but her story was eventually the basis for a National Geographic photo essay and her own book on the trip (-20 points).

Alone for most of the trip, Robyn is frequently visited by a mouthy but sweet photographer (5 points, just because he’s played by Adam Driver), but she eventually picks up a knowledgeable travel guide (-20 points) and even takes refuge at the home of a sweet elderly couple (-15 points). Along the way, there are all sorts of perils, including horny camels (10 points), poison (5 points), and the very real danger of running out of water (30 points), though Driver’s character eventually helps with one of those problems (-20 points).

How harrowing? 85 POINTS. 




Based on the historical journey (10 points) of Thor Heyerdahl way back in 1947, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg’s film was a nominee for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film.

A well-made and perversely enjoyable film, it centers on the Norwegian explorer’s quest to cross about 4,300 miles of Pacific Ocean (10 points) to prove his theory (10 points) that ancient Peruvians actually settled Polynesia. It was a nutty enough idea, but Heyerdahl set out to do it without being able to swim (20 points) or sail (10 points). Bent on fully proving his theory, Heyerdahl insisted on replicating the mode of transport that Peruvians would have used – a balsawood raft (15 points). While the raft itself was small, it was also kitted out with military equipment procured from the U.S. government (-20 points).

Heyerdahl also had a crew by his side (-30 points), though most of them were brutally inexperienced as it applied to what they were going to do out on the high seas (15 points), though one of them did bring a bird (-5 points). The journey itself was perilous enough, and it was made still worse by the threat of sharks and other evil water wildlife (10 points), massive infighting (10 points), and Heyerdahl’s crumbling marriage (5 points).

How harrowing? 60 POINTS.



Alfonso Cuaron’s recent box office juggernaut is unquestionably harrowing, but is it harrowing enough? The fictional story (-5 points) centers on a space mission gone terribly wrong (10 points) when a decimated satellite leaves a path of destruction in its wake, one that also turns into a “speeding bullet” of space trash (20 points) that zings around the planet in ninety minute intervals.

While Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is up in the air for work (10 points), we soon learn that she doesn’t have much waiting for her back on Earth, so all that “going on a space mission for a bit” thing isn’t so hard for her, but the reason why that’s so is deeply sad (10 points). Though she’s got a handsome counterpart to help her out (-20 points), played by George Clooney as the world’s most popular astronaut, he insists on playing country music (10 points) and telling stories about his wild life back on Earth (10 points).

It’s certainly bad enough that all that whizzing space junk destroys their shuttle and the Hubble telescope and all communications with NASA (20 points), but it also sends an untethered Stone spiraling out into space, with no hope of being saved (50 points). Spoiler alert: she is ultimately “saved,” but that only kicks off a desperate journey to find a space pod that hasn’t been destroyed by the trash hellbent on putting a hole through her head, leading her to cross vast stretches of the heavens with little air (20 points) and a diminishing sense of reality (10 points). Will she make it back to a planet that has nothing to offer her (20 points)? We’re not telling, but seeing this thing in IMAX 3D is a good way to get some cardio without ever moving.

How harrowing? 165 POINTS.



930353 - Captain Phillips

This week’s opener, Paul Greengrass’ version of the true story (10 points) of sea Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in nearly two hundred years (5 points), takes its time getting down to the dire business, but damn if it doesn’t pay off big time.

While Phillips (played wonderfully by Tom Hanks) has a hard enough job already (10 points), things get quite bad when he spots a pack of Somalia pirates trailing them and clearly prepping to board their ship, take them hostage, and demand a massive ransom (20 points). Phillips and crew (-10 points) manage to fend off the pirates’ first attempt (-10 points), a renegade group of four come back, guns blazing, intent on taking the ship for their own. They succeed (20 points).

Bent on protecting his crew, Phillips guides the pirate group around the ship, terrified that he’ll discover the dudes hiding down in the engine room (10 points). When he manages to use his own wits to strike up a deal with them, everything seems just peachy (-10 points), until the pirates shove him into a tiny lifeboat and hit the ocean, minds set to taking him to Somalia to extract more ransom (30 points). While the U.S. military soon intervenes, Phillips is still trapped on the small craft with his captors, unsure if they’ll kill him or the Navy will just blow him sky high in an attempt to cut the operation off at its knees (30 points). Even an attempt to escape his kidnappers simply results in a soaked Phillips losing his shirt and getting punched in the face (10 points). You can’t win (or, if you know the outcome of the real story, you probably know the answer already).

How harrowing? 125 POINTS



after earth spaceship

Sure, the latest from M. Night Shyamalan features crash-landed spacecraft (30 points), some father-son drama (10 points), and a bunch of mutated wildlife who are dedicated to killing humans (20 points), but it’s also a Will and Jaden Smith vanity project that doesn’t even try to be rooted in reality (-70 points). Take a knee, After Earth, you’re lucky to be included here.

How harrowing? -10 POINTS.




The Robert Redford-starring high seas drama has got everything that screams, “this is a harrowing film!” Redford is the lone actor in the film (50 points), a nameless sailor who appears to have set out on a jaunt around the Indian Ocean in his small, but swanky sailboat (5 points) due to personal reasons we never fully know about or understand, though it seems fair to assume his children hate him (20 points).

Much like Gravity, everything that can go wrong in All Is Lost does go wrong, but Redford never has the chance to face it with a partner or a crew (15 points) and is instead totally alone when forced to deal with the aftermath of a bobbing shipping container crashing into his boat (10 boats). Did we mention that when the shipping container breaches the boat’s hull, it does it by way of a massive hole that sends water streaming on to all of Redford’s electronic equipment (20 points)? That’s right, he doesn’t even have a chance of calling for help or hearing a kind voice (the fact that his radio briefly flickers on only makes this more pointed).

Things don’t get much better from there, as Redford is sent huge ocean storms (20 points), a ruined food and water supply (40 points), and a couple of well-timed tosses into the sea (10 points). Virtually voiceless from his ordeal, the guy can’t even talk to himself for reassurance (15 points), which is particularly upsetting when potential saviors chug on by and he can scarcely yell enough to get the attention of the very people who could keep him from dying alone out in the ocean, where it’s pretty much assured he’d never be found (25 points).

How harrowing? 230 POINTS.


WINNER: ALL IS LOST. Yes, all really is lost with this one.