Movies set in the wild bring us back to our prehistoric origins, no matter how modern their premise might seem. Before we had stories about people escaping the Matrix and battling artificial intelligences set on destroying humanity, our narratives were about surviving the harshness of Mother Nature and fending off wild animals.
These wilderness films put nature, in all her danger and beauty, back on center stage.
1. In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
The Heart of the Sea is a twist on retellings of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a book about one man and his quest to look for a whale. Instead of being a direct book to film adaptation, The Heart of the Sea tells the story of the sinking of Essex, a whaling ship that inspired Melville to write his famous novel. It follows whaler Owen Chase and captain George Pollard as they make a killing by killing whales. The whales, understandably, aren’t very happy about being turned into whale oil so one of them learns that it may be in their best interest to start destroying ships.
2. Everest (2015)
Based on the events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, Everest follows a group of climbers trying to finish the hike of their dreams. the plot is pretty straightforward but there’s a growing sense of dread that follows you slowly throughout the movie. Seemingly small things go wrong on the hikers’ way to the summit of Mt. Everest and while it seems like they’ll be fine, it later becomes clear that all the tiny problems they’ve had on their way up have snowballed into a situation where their chances of survival are grim.
3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch Project is known for being the movie that made found footage horror fetch, but what doesn’t get as much attention about this film is that it’s mostly set in the woods. The cameras keep us feeling connected to civilization, sure, but as odd things start to happen to the characters, we’re reminded that they can’t expect to find help easily given where they are.
While it isn’t exactly a nature horror film where the enemy is nature itself, the eeriness of The Blair Witch Project is something that’s familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time in the woods. There are weird noises out there and warped spaces that feel like they’re playing tricks on you. Blair Witch embodies those moments.
4. Into the Wild (2007)
Into the Wild is the wilderness movie to watch if you’ve only got time to watch one thing on this list. The movie is was inspired by Christopher McCandless’ adventures in the wilderness of Alaska. McCandless was disenchanted with society and wanted to abandon it entirely by living in the woods — an idea he may have gotten from Jack London’s book The Call of the Wild, a book about a dog who lived during the Klondike Gold Rush.
The film’s story is told in a series of flashbacks to the events leading up to how McCandless found himself in Alaska. It’s not a happy story about how one man found true meaning in the wilderness, but a harsh reminder of how cruel nature can be — no matter how badly we want to romanticize it.
5. Alive (1993)
Alive is another biographical film about surviving nature. It’s based on the famous Uruguayan plane crash that stranded a rugby team in the Andes, forcing them to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. This movie is a faithful adaptation of the real events that inspired it so expect it to be very intense.
6. The Kings of Summer (2013)
The Kings of Summer is coming-of-age film that can be described as Lord of the Flies if it featured normal kids. Sick of their lives and families, Joe and Patrick decide to drop out of society. The pair sneak off into the woods and start building a house. Everything seems perfect, even with the strange Biaggio around, until the boys are forced to realize that leaving society wasn’t the key to lasting happiness that they hoped it would be.
7. Leave No Trace (2018)
Leave No Trace is about a father-daughter duo living in Forest Park, Portland, Oregon. It’s not exactly the most wild movie since they’re still relatively close to cities, but it’s this desire to be truly lost in the wild that creates the tension between the two and the world around them as well as between them. Will, who is a veteran suffering from PTSD, wants to lie a quiet life in the woods with his daughter, but the two are discovered by authorities and forced to re-integrate into society. Will wants to go back, but Tom discovers she likes being around other people.
8. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Jeremiah Johnson follows its titular character, a Mexican War veteran, as he leaves the comforts of modern life to make a living as a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. Instead of being a Man vs. Wild story, this movie is about Jeremiah’s struggle against the needless violence that the world at large seems to want from him, even though all he wants to do is sit on the porch of a quiet cabin in the woods.
9. Jungle (2017)
Jungle stars Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe in a survival story set deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. The movie is based on Yossi Ghinsberg’s true story of being stranded in the Amazon rainforest for three weeks after his adventuring group splits up, leaving him to survive on his own. A lot of terrifying things can happen to one man lost in the middle of nowhere and Jungle delivers on that premise by creating tension that’s on par with a psychological thriller.
Speaking of the horrors of nature…
10. Backcountry (2014)
You’ve heard of Man vs. Wild, but how about Woman vs. Bear? Backcountry is a “nature-survival horror” about a woman and her boyfriend being stalked by a man-eating bear. As the film goes on, it shifts its focus entirely on Jenn, the lead female character, as she tries to fend off the bear on her own.
There’s something about female leads in survival and action movies that makes every scene feel more fraught with danger. Women tend to be physically weaker on average so watching a survival movie with a female lead instead of a male lead really highlights the asymmetry in strength between the lead character and her bear antagonist.
11. The Revenant (2015)
We can’t talk about wilderness movies without mentioning Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant. DiCaprio’s character agrees to guide a group of trappers through Dakota territory but the group is fractured after an attack by a native tribe. Glass decides to take the surviving trappers to Fort Kiowa but is attacked by a grizzly bear and left hanging on the edge of death. Abandoned by the group he was guiding, Glass must now make it out of the wilderness and survive his injuries alone.