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Who Is the Best Movie Survivalist?

‘The Mountain Between Us’ is just the latest film to severely test the mettle of its characters. But which movie featured the most indomitable survivor?

20th Century Fox/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

The Mountain Between Us, a new survival movie that stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, is, it would appear, not very good. Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) ended his review by writing, “The Mountain Between Us is epic all right—an epic waste of talent and your time.” Jeannette Catsoulis (The New York Times) started her review by writing, “To watch the magnetic Idris Elba trudge through a monumental dud like The Mountain Between Us is almost physically painful.” And Alissa Wilkinson (Vox) wrote in the middle of her review, “... as a professional film critic, I’m also obliged to tell you that The Mountain Between Us isn’t a very good film.” So it’s bad. And that’s sad. Because good survival movies are fun and tense. And great survival movies are exhilarating and, occasionally, transcendent.

Every movie is a survival movie if you think about it long enough. Think of a movie. The Shawshank Redemption? Definitely a survival movie. (Andy survives the hopelessness of prison.) Baby Driver? For sure a survival movie. (Baby survives the cruelness of the underworld.) Clueless? Of course a survival movie. (Cher survives riding in a car with Dionne on the freeway.) (Also falling in love.) 8 Mile? Unmistakably a survival movie. (B-Rabbit survives humiliation, and also poverty.) Moneyball? Clearly a survival movie. (Brad Pitt survives being in a movie about baseball stats.) Any of the Jurassic Park movies. Each of The Fast and the Furious movies. All of the The Matrix movies. Every single horror movie, drama, romantic comedy, documentary. On and on and on.

Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away’ 20th Century Fox

The most versatile of all the movie survivalists is Tom Hanks. He has survived so many things, in basically all types of different environments. Some of them: He survived being trapped in space in Apollo 13. He survived real and actual war in a foreign land in Saving Private Ryan. He survived being attacked by Somali pirates on the open ocean in Captain Phillips. He survived a global, church-pushed conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code. He survived being forgotten about in Toy Story and then being kidnapped and potentially sold into toy slavery in Toy Story 2 and then prison and eventual total ruination in Toy Story 3. And he survived a plane crash and then being stranded on an island in Cast Away. (The scene where he knocks a rotten tooth out with a rock and an ice skate is so, so good, and also so, so hard to watch.) (My favorite scene in that movie, though, is the one where he hits the fish with the spear after the movie fast-forwards to when he’s a survival champion. I just really like to see people catching fish without fishing poles for some reason. I don’t know why it’s so interesting, or so mesmerizing, but it is. Sometimes, and this going to sound completely ridiculous, but sometimes I watch these videos that people make on YouTube where they put a camera inside of a fish trap and you can watch fish swim into them and get trapped. It’s so satisfying. Probably my all-time favorite fish-trap scene in a movie happens in 1987’s White Water Summer, which stars Kevin Bacon as a dogmatic adventure guide for teens and Sean Astin as a precocious teen in need of some nature-based actualization. Bacon teaches Astin and the other teens in the group how to catch fish with their hands. Astin, though, who’s about two levels smarter than everyone else, uses sticks to rig up a trap that catches fish easier and faster.)

Tom Hanks is the most versatile movie survivalist, but do you know who the very best movie survivalist is? It’s not Will Smith in I Am Legend. It’s not Sandra Bullock in Gravity. (She, though, is definitely my favorite movie survivalist, and this is definitely my favorite survival movie.) It’s not any of the people in 1993’s Alive or any of the people in 2010’s The Way Back or any of the people in 2005’s The Descent, which is sublime. It’s not Christian Bale in 2006’s Rescue Dawn. It’s not Ryan Reynolds in 2010’s Buried or James Franco in 2010’s 127 Hours. (He was superb in this movie. The part where he’s finally cutting off his arm and he hits that one tendon is a real spectacle, and likely something I will never forget.) And it’s not Liam Neeson in 2012’s The Grey (though he only loses out by the tiniest of margins, because he is a truly exceptional movie survivalist). No. It’s not any of those, or anyone else you want to submit. Because it’s Anthony Hopkins in 1997’s The Edge, which is the best movie named after a member of U2 ever made.

In The Edge, Hopkins plays Charles Morse, a curious and hyper-intelligent billionaire who ends up stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a shifty fashion photographer named Bob Green (played by Alec Baldwin) and his clumsy but charming assistant, Stephen (played by Harold Perrineau) after their plane crashes. During the movie, Charles hits on all the different things that you want to see a movie survivalist go through and do and be.

First, as mentioned, he’s incredibly smart, and so that’s always very appealing. Among other things, we get to see him answer some seemingly impossible-to-answer questions without flinching, and we get to see him make a compass out of a paper clip, and we get to see him cure a man’s stomach cramp with spit, and we get to see him explain how to make fire with ice. Those sorts of moments always make for strong movie touches.

Second, he also has a very quiet confidence about him, and he plays it calm all the way through the movie, up until the end when he starts yelling about how he’s tired of running from a giant bear that is hunting them, at which point he shouts, “You’re goddamn right! ’Cause today, I’m gonna kill the motherfucker!” And I don’t mind telling you that every time I watch that scene I, too, feel like I’m ready to kill that motherfucker.

Third, and this is obviously paramount, he survives so many things. He survives the initial plane crash, and then he survives hypothermia (because the plane crashes into a lake), and then he survives a bear attack, and then he survives a second bear attack, and then he survives starvation, and then he finally thinks of a way to kill the bear WITH A GODDAMN STICK, and then, after all of that is done, he has to survive a murder attempt by Bob, who, it turns out, was sleeping with Charles’s wife and had been plotting on killing him out in the woods the entire time. And what’s especially great is that the murder attempt goes sideways when Bob accidentally falls into a pit filled with stakes (a deadfall, as it gets explained to us, which someone had set up in an attempt to kill any intruding bears), and Charles, rather than leave Bob there to die, saves him. He gets him up out of the deadfall, takes care of Bob’s wounds (a broken leg that also has a massive gouge in it, which will not stop bleeding), puts him on a canoe, then rides him down the river to what ends up being a rescue point. Bob dies from blood loss, but Charles never tells anyone that Bob had betrayed him. Instead, he tells reporters (because there are reporters back at the cabin when he returns, what with him being a billionaire and all) that Bob and Stephen (who was eaten by the bear due to Bob’s carelessness) died saving his life. And what’s more, he gives his wife just enough of a hint to let her know that he knows that she had been cheating on him.

It’s wonderful. It’s so wonderful. The movie is slow and enjoyable and just the right amount of entertaining, which is to say it’s harrowing but not too harrowing, and difficult but too difficult. I wish there were more movies where Anthony Hopkins had to fight bears, and not alien robots or the devil or gorilla poachers.