NZIFF Survivalist

The Christchurch leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival is in full swing and there’s been some brilliant films on show thus far!

A particular favourite of mine has been ‘Arctic’ – a one-man powerhouse performance by Mads Mikkelsen. He’s a pilot that has crash-landed somewhere in the vast emptiness of the Arctic and from the beginning of the film it’s obvious that he’s already been there for some time. He has developed a routine and a set of behaviours that centres around:

a) keeping himself fed (luckily there’s fish right under his feet ready for the catching), and

b) giving himself the best possible chance of being rescued.

Without giving anything away, events occur that lead him to the decision to make a long trek to a possible permanent habitat due North. It’s a road movie, a survival piece, and a celebration of the resilience of humans in the face of insurmountable odds. Mads needs some serious recognition for this performance!

The survival-against-the-odds theme is not something new to us in storytelling and film making however. I myself am particularly drawn to those stories that pit an individual – often the survivor of some calamitous event, against the wilderness in whatever shape that takes. There are examples set in jungles, deserts, mountains and polar regions, there are even some set in space. Often the entire story is reliant on a single actor to shoulder the whole burden and when there’s nature involved it opens the way for cinematographers, costume designers, and music composers to help set the scene and drive the suspense. A good recent example is ‘All is Lost’ which sees Robert Redford give a riveting performance as a man lost at sea, adrift and endangered.

And here’s nine more, in a list…

The art of survival

List created by DevilStateDan

Films that showcase the stranded loner pitted against nature and against all the odds of surviving at all… From the jungle to the Arctic, from space, the open ocean, and the desert; all these environments are out to kill you! Could you do what it takes to survive…?!?

Into the Wild – The story of a young American man who sells up and hits the road heading all the way north into Alaska. He’s desiring to be closer to nature and to get away from humanity. He has only his wits and some very limited survival skills to negotiate the harsh and unpredictable environment. A great journey and a decent telling in this movie and a great performance from Emile Hirsch.

Cast Away – The classic tale of the “shipwrecked”. The sole survivor of a FedEx plane crash ends up on an isolated island and has to fend for himself. He’s there quite a long time and we get to see his transition from inept city-dweller to experienced survivalist. Great solo performance from Tom Hanks.

Gravity – Survival in space! A single astronaut survives a disaster in orbit around Earth. She’s got to use all her guile, instinct, and training to get back to the surface. Gripping story and amazing cinematography and a stellar performance from Sandra Bullock (and George Clooney for a bit too!).

Jungle – Based on real events, a young Israeli adventurer finds himself lost and alone in the jungle of South America. It’s a hostile environment and we follow his descent into desperation and madness. Another standout performance from Daniel Radcliffe.

127 Hours – Everyone knows the story – a mountain climber gets stuck and spends 127 hours locked in place when his arm becomes caught in a climbing mishap. He’s driven to some dark places in his mind and the most desperate option quickly becomes the only option. James Franco is very good in this!

The Martian – The movie of the super-popular novel of the same name. An astronaut is left behind on Mars after a minor disaster spoils the plans for the mission. The “castaway” is a biologist and he soon gets to work farming potatoes, and making plans for his rescue. Big budget, big names, big topic! Matt Damon delivers a pretty decent representation of the main character but this does get very “Hollywood” at times…. but then it’s set on Mars and it’s a survivalist story so what’s not to like!!

Life of Pi – An oceanic wilderness survival tale with a difference. Young Indian man Pi is adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat. Along for the ride are various wild animals from his family’s zoo business – one of them is a Bengal Tiger! Can he reach safety before he becomes lunch?? Good story told in retrospect and great work from the special effects department.

The Revenant – Not so much a sole-survivor tale but a good story of desperation, survival, and revenge! A member of a trapping party in the 1800’s is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his party. With a little help along the way he manages to recover enough to navigate his way back to civilisation and onto avenge his betrayal. Dark and bloody and there’s a graphic bear attack. Leonardo DiCaprio does pretty well with what is a difficult role and the support cast are very good. I’d read the book by Michael Punke first though, it goes better than the film.

The Shallows – A tense thriller involving a young surfer and a homicidal shark! The girl is stranded annoyingly close to shore, but she’s in the Great White’s feeding ground and he’s got a taste for blood. The ocean is a scary place!

View Full List

Many of these stories are based on books and some are true life tales of hardship and exposure, but for today we’re talking movies…

Happy viewing,


A bit of what I didn’t know I fancied

Cover of Dark PlacesLately, without consciously planning to, I’ve been extending my literary horizons by reading a bit of gritty fiction that I’m glad is fiction, and then there’s been the non-fiction that I almost wish was fiction.

Aptly titled, Dark Places is an unfortunately contemporary storyline of family massacre. Not my normal cup of chai, but I was at the time without a fiction novel on the go and, having read Gone Girl also by Gillian Flynn, I waded in.

“Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in ‘The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.’ As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived – and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer.”

Libby is the unsurprisingly disturbed narrator, now 32 and very brittle. She receives an offer of money to talk to the Kill Club, a group of people who believe Ben is innocent. As she is running out of trust money, she goes along with the request. Caught up in the need of the Kill Club to find out who “dunnit”, she finds more than she bargained for and learns the answers to a lot of questions. The writing is great, just the right amount of tension; one could believe this small community truly existed.

Cover of When I Fell From the SkyThat should have been enough, but, no, what should fall into my hands but When I Fell from the Sky. 17 year old Juliane Koepcke landed in the Peruvian jungle still strapped into her seat after the plane that she and her Mother were travelling in disintegrated in a severe storm.

An amazing young woman with a heck of story, she tells her incredible story of survival and her life before and since. This is definitely non-fiction, however you couldn’t be blamed for wishing it was fiction. It’s not overly well edited, but the story overcomes this. Do you put yourself in the position of these plucky people and wonder how you would have fared? Would you have been scared witless or resourceful? Lived or died? I don’t know if I would have made it out alive.

Next on my accidental list was more gritty fiction, again with contemporary reality parallels throughout the world.

In Room by Emma Donoghue, the story of kidnap and abuse is narrated by the nearly 5-year-old son of  his ‘Ma’, the young woman snatched 7 years before. The further in I read, the less I could put it down. It’s moving but it’s not depressing. To say more would be to give away too much. It’s a must read, with tissues nearby.

Have you found a book that you would normally put back on the shelf but, once started, you have ended up reading to the end? And been really glad you did? These three books were definitely some of those for me.