6 Survival Movies with Really Important Lessons
by Fabian Ommar
Life is not a movie, but there are claims that it imitates art. Here are a few SHTF and survival-themed films (including some takeaways) for preppers looking for a bit of educational entertainment during (much deserved) breaks.
We are continually discussing and suggesting prepping and survival books. Besides direct experience and/or training, they are probably the best source of knowledge and information indeed. Movies, too, can be entertaining yet educational and inspiring at the same time.
Who doesn’t like a good flick?
Some may say that films are fantasy, too detached from reality to be taken seriously, and too superficial to be useful, even more so when it comes to something so dramatic and practical as survival. But many times, we have an “Aha!” moment or come up with a solution to a problem while playing a game, jogging, or doing something completely detached from the issue. That’s how our brains work.
While it may be true that mainstream studios and producers (a.k.a. Hollywood) tend to lean toward fantasy, they also have an unequaled capacity to put out amazingly realistic content. Some of it can fill gaps in our imagination, inspire and boost our creativity. So I guess it depends on which movies we chose and how we look at them. An open mind can draw lessons from almost anywhere.
Movies are the modern version of ancient storytelling
Every civilization has a way of registering its history and passing ahead its myths, fears, and achievements; of telling its stories, glorifying its heroes, and vilifying its enemies (real and imaginary). Cinema, also called “the seventh art,” is a valid form of expressing this tradition.
I don’t mean this to be just about learning and being practical. Sometimes we need a distraction, to take a break from the hardships of life and routine. Preppers are normal people, after all.
As a disclaimer, I consider myself as far from the intellectual cinema snob as one can be. I like simple things and do appreciate a good commercial blockbuster as much as anyone else. But more than fancy CGI or big-name acting, I tend to favor coherent plots, a strong script, character arc development, intelligent dialogs, and above all, gripping stories. In other words, just good ol’ quality entertainment that won’t patronize me or treat me like a ticket-paying, brain-dead movie-goer.
I would like you to enjoy watching these films AND take something from them
I aimed for titles that embody survivalism in one or more ways. At the same time, movies that fulfill those criteria and balance entertainment and education. Finally, I added a few personal takeaways from each one. You’ll draw yours, I’m sure.
I also made an honest effort to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. These films have been out for a few years already. Some are acclaimed box-office hits, thus widely reviewed and discussed in MSM and other outlets. Either way, my sincere apologies in advance if I let something slip.
So, without further ado, here are my top 6 choices.
THE ROAD (2009)
If The Road is not the most realistic, grim, and haunting depiction of a cataclysmic SHTF, I don’t know which one deserves this (dubious) honor. Maybe you do – and I’d be curious to hear about it.
Even though we could conceive something different in our imagination, it’d pretty hard to come up with a scenario worse than the one portrayed in this (still) incredible movie that tells the story of a father and his son trying to live through a literal hell-on-earth SHTF.
It is unquestionably, an all-about-survival film. It is also the darkest, gloomiest, most depressing one I’ve seen. Based on the acclaimed (and even darker) book by Cormack McCarthy, The Road presents quite graphically and unyieldingly most, if not every, nightmares entertained by preppers and Survivalist. I mean, ever.
The movie depicts absolute and irreversible devastation of the land and complete extinction of all natural and artificial resources. (For which no apparent cause nor even much clue is given.) It also portrays the grotesque in human beings: widespread cannibalism, suicide, diseases, fights, and disputes.
We’re spared the horrors that led to this point. But there is a constant and tense showcase of fear, desperation, and hopelessness. Which begs a fundamental question, presented as flashbacks of the man’s wife and her irreconcilable dilemma: why would anyone want to survive in a dying world, with so much suffering and absolutely no sign of hope?
As always, Charlize Theron delivers an intense performance, personifying this conflict internally and externally. The way she finally deals with the matter carries a powerful symbology and dramatic charge. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic as a loving and caring yet imperfect father, a tough man with a tormented soul in a world where “everyone is either dead or dying.” We can feel his pain and misery. Throughout the movie, his character arc is the perfect survivalist script, going through every phase that any common, decent man would if dealing with such a situation.
In the end, as hopeless and depressing as it may sound, it’s still a beautiful story about fatherly love and the survive-at-all-cost nature of humanity. It provides lots of themes for reflection too: the importance of holding on to sound principles even in SHTF; how fortunate we are for being in this situation we find ourselves in today; how valuable yet fragile our existence is; and how impotent we are in the face of the powers of nature.
Main takeaways of The Road
There are lots of prepping and survivalism techniques and concepts delivered throughout: scavenging, camouflaging, food and water acquisition, treating and rationing, the whole playbook. At one point, they even come across a subterranean cache in a farm, which ends up providing perhaps the lightest moments in the entire movie. The reason why the father keeps a gun with only two bullets is heart-wrenching (as one can imagine), but it can be a thing. Trust no one, stay off the road, and kill-or-get-killed are also lessons from The Road for the darker hours of a truly dark SHTF.
I’ve mentioned Alive! in a previous post here, so I’ll keep this brief. The movie is based on the book. The film fills any eventual blanks in our imagination with graphic scenes and visuals, and compelling drama.
According to the survivors themselves, it is also a faithful depiction of the Uruguayan rugby team’s real situations and their families who got stranded in the Andes after a plane crash in October of 1972. Acting is spot-on, and a very young and talented Ethan Hawk takes the front as the level-headed Nando. The movie is even more powerful because it’s a real story, and we know it to be so. We can put ourselves in the characters’ places and share their dilemmas and desperation, imagine their drama, feel their pain.
Main takeaways of Alive
Mostly, the absolute and definitive importance of mentality and mindset in survival. You will do whatever it takes to live another day, even the unimaginable, and this can make all the difference in the outcome of a disaster or SHTF situation.
THE SURVIVALIST (2015)
As the title makes clear, this is the quintessential lone wolf survivalist story: a young, resourceful, and well-prepared man living alone in a shack right in the middle of a secluded, beautiful forest after a SHTF event kills a large percentage of Earth’s population (a, uh, virus maybe?). One day an elderly woman and her young daughter show up, and the Survivalist faces some dilemmas, new situations, and developments that end up breaking the delicate balance of his lifestyle.
The Survivalist is a low-budget independent production filled with textbook wildlife prepping and survival techniques and concepts. The guy does it all: gardening, foraging, hunting, trapping. And the movie takes the time to show some of that in more detail. There is some nudity and sex, so be forewarned.
Situations we know to happen during real-life SHTF are seen in the movie. In this case, bartering is a sexual agreement between the main character and the two women. This agreement ends up being the connecting thread and the catalyst to a lot of the film’s action. There is also a lot of suspense and turnarounds, dark secrets and revelations, and surprises.
Main takeaways of The Survivalist
During a SHTF, we may not search for trouble, but trouble will come for us. We see how hard it can be to survive alone, in a perfect place, even if you’re young, healthy, smart, and prepared, with abundant resources around you. Tough decisions need to be made many times, and often we succumb to our most basic instincts even during SHTF.
THE BOOK OF ELI (2010)
The Book Of Eli isn’t just a superstar list. It’s a superb post-apocalyptic commercial flick with saddening yet impressive filmography of endless devastated landscapes. It is a well made, solidly acted movie with some fast action through and through.
The background couldn’t be more typical: in a post-nuclear, apocalyptic SHTF world, a warlord (Gary Oldman, great as usual) and his gang of sociopaths rule over a small town and control the resources by the power of numbers and use of violence and oppression. It seems to work, though, because it’s the only place where cannibalism isn’t common or even accepted, and there’s some semblance of civilization and order.
The main character portrays another recurrent and mythic fixture of survivalism: the independent, extremely skilled, highly prepared and trained, probably-ex-military loner with unwavering faith and confidence and unbreakable resolution—sort of a Mad Max with serious training and religious mission. Mila Kunis becomes his female sidekick after trying to break out from the warlord’s tyranny.
Denzel Washington’s mysterious character is perhaps a bit overpowered, never so much as flinching even in the face of great danger or when dealing with numerous deadly threats. He never misses a shot (gun or arrow) and can swiftly defeat entire hordes of dangerous thugs. His power seems to derive from his faith, as does his mental and physical toughness. We’re taken along his adventures through a devastated land in search of some eluded safe heaven. A place he’s been told by a voice to exist somewhere in the west, and to where he must take the last of King James’s bible. (Said to be the cause of the final conflict and the only thing capable to heal humankind and the world.
Main takeaways of The Book of Eli
When SHTF, stay off the roads. Stay away from people, and trust no one. The Book Of Eli highlights the importance of having faith in a world without much else to live for. It shows the importance of being healthy, skillful, and resourceful for survival, which we know to be the case in serious SHTF situations. Finally, “leave it alone, this doesn’t concern you” may be a rule to follow if you want to stay alive when SHTF.
CAST AWAY (2000)
Guy gets stranded alone on a virgin island in the middle of the Pacific after his airplane crashes. He has to learn everything from making a fire to cracking coconuts open, fishing with spears, and even removing a rotting tooth. Cast Away is a modern version of the classic survival tale, stemming from a long tradition of 18th and 19th centuries tales of sailors, shipwrecks, and pirates.
Cast Away is a superb film, and as everyone probably knows, Tom Hanks delivered an Oscar-worthy, jaw-dropping performance. He carries the film almost entirely on his back, and just like Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli, he makes it all look credible and fun.
Main takeaways of Cast Away
First, there is the importance of covering the basics, such as improvising shelter and fire. It may be possible to learn skills and develop survival knowledge from ground zero without tools or special resources. But having prior basic knowledge can accelerate that learning curve, in most instances, perhaps being the difference between making it or not. Also: always have an EDC 9 with some painkillers on you, especially if you’re traveling. Finally, sometimes we must break out from complacency to survive in the long run. Oh, and always take good care of your teeth.
THE MARTIAN (2015)
I’d rank The Martian as a high-tech, space version of Cast Away. With a few differences, both movies paint a very realistic portrait of how it is to live alone in a far-away place with limited, dwindling resources. Surviving is indeed a marathon.
Matt Damon plays a scientist on a mission to Mars that suffers an accident and is marooned on the red planet. He survives the explosion but is deemed dead by his colleagues as their spaceship takes off back to Earth.
It’s the “perfect individual SHTF scenario” script. The guy in trouble is a prepper and has a stash of supplies by profession. He is a scientist and gets fresh food cultivated. An SHTF inside his SHTF happens and cuts supplies short (very common). He has to ration the remaining food, find a way to communicate with others, and keep a plan advancing—all the while fighting to maintain his sanity amidst disaster.
Beginning the flick as a healthy, strong astronaut, he’s shown as a bony, skinny survivor waiting for rescue by the end of the movie. In about a year and a half, he transformed due to resources becoming scarce. The only threat missing is also the most significant one in any SHTF on Earth: other human beings. In this case, humanity is either working to bring him back or rooting for him. He had so many different threats and challenges to deal with that made the whole situation crazy-dangerous, so we’ll let that pass.
Main takeaways of The Martian
The Martian is about a personal SHTF, but that happens: an accident leads to a crisis. The acceptance, the assessment of the situation, the compiling of resources. The application of skills to deal with multiple challenges. The creativity to improvise. The adaptability. The will to survive. Those are all great takeaways.
Except for The Road and The Survivalist, these are typical Hollywood, feel-good blockbuster movies. So the endings were happy ones, in various degrees. It’s not always the case in real life, where the script is written for us. There are so many other things that can and do go wrong, so many factors playing a hand.
No crisis lasts forever. We must look from this perspective to deal with the peaks, plateaus, and valleys of any SHTF until we can reach the other side. And there’s a lot to reflect upon on how SHTF wears us down. Surviving is all about working, yet the importance of keeping spirits high and not give in to desperation is of significant importance.
The biggest takeaway from this collection of movies is perhaps to look at life in the present: let’s be thankful and enjoy the world as we have it now.
There are many other survival movies worth our time. For more survival movies for your next prepper movie night, check out this list. If you have your favorite ones, be sure to share them in the comments below.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor