Weekend Roundtable: Man (or Woman) vs. Nature Movies

A movie doesn’t necessarily need a villain to create drama. This week’s theatrical release of ‘Everest’ is the latest film to explore the conflict between man (or woman) and nature. Let’s look at some other good ones in today’s Roundtable.

For the purposes of this topic, we’ll accept movies in which the hero faces off against an animal, so long as it’s an animal actually found in nature, not a monster or something genetically modified by an evil scientist.

Mike Attebery

My favorite man-versus-nature film actually has a few elements of man-versus-man and man-versus-himself tossed in, but all the best films in this genre do. Still, considering the primary turning point is a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, which leaves the survivors trying to find their way back to civilization without freezing to death or being eaten by a bear, I think it fits the category comfortably. I’m talking about ‘The Edge‘, the 1997 David Mamet scripted film that I still believe is tragically underrated. This is a film with so much going on under the surface that at times you don’t know if it’s going to become a gory fight to the death, a dark comedy or a really depressing tragedy. I think that’s why the film never really found the audience it deserves. It was so hard to market that the trailers struggled to capture just what this story was about. (Personally, I originally feared it would go the horror route.) This is a film with tremendous replay value. If you haven’t seen it, please check it out!

Luke Hickman

As much as I want to list ‘2012’ on here because of how stupidly entertaining it is, I cannot honestly claim that it’s my favorite. My favorite film to fall in this category is also one of my all-time favorite films: Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘. (Coincidentally, the author of the non-fiction book, Jon Krakauer, was a member of the expedition team whose tragic story is told in ‘Everest’.)

I knew nothing about Christopher McCandless’ story leading up to my first viewing. I’d seen the trailer and was enticed solely by the gorgeous cinematography. I had no clue that it would end up being an entirely aesthetically pleasing experience. I recall thinking to myself in the middle of the film, “I hope this movie never ends.” I was gripped by the screenplay, the visuals, the actors/characters, Eddie Vedder’s amazing original songs and the sad story at hand. I’ve known people like “Alexander Supertramp.” In my 20s, I’d always wished that I had the stones to go on an uncharted adventure across the country. It’s nice to be able to live vicariously through something as beautiful and perfect as ‘Into the Wild’.

M. Enois Duarte

A few of my favorite man vs. nature themed movies are ‘Long Weekend‘ (1978), ‘Walkabout‘, and most recently ‘Gravity‘. But the one title that always tops my list in this category is the wildly entertaining ‘Jaws‘.

Based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg broke the mold with this summer blockbuster classic about a great white shark terrorizing a small New England resort town. I still have memories of watching this movie for the first time on satellite in the early 1980s, my pre-teen eyes glued to the screen when little Alex Kintner is brutally attacked and blood splashes everywhere. Although Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ was greeted with box office success twelve years earlier, Spielberg’s film set a new tone in terror. We could even say it cemented the genre commonly known as natural horror, where nature or animals suddenly turn into vengeful, cold-blooded killers for humanity’s indifference towards nature. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking that made a massive cultural impact.

Shannon Nutt

“What one man can do, another can do!” My pick for my favorite Man vs. Nature film is 1997’s ‘The Edge‘, starring Anthony Hopkins as a billionaire and Alec Baldwin as a fashion photographer who may or may not be sleeping with the billionaire’s supermodel wife (played by real-life supermodel Elle Macpherson). The two rivals and potential enemies are forced to work together to survive when their private plane crashes in the middle of nowhere. Not only must they brave the elements, but they must take on a killer Kodiak bear that starts stalking them.

‘The Edge’ features two good actors doing some of their best on-screen work, and has never really gotten the praise it deserves. It’s available on Blu-ray and is a great blind buy if you’ve never had the chance to see it.

Brian Hoss

The Ghost and the Darkness‘ is admittedly not a great a film. Michael Douglas in particular seems to be parodying someone like James Hopper. Even so, the setting and the subject matter are endlessly fascinating. As is quite rare in a Hollywood film, historical events are invoked and represented in period with high production values yet without the obvious Oscar angling and sentimentality. More importantly, Val Kilmer’s Colonel John Henry Patterson does a great job of facing a mortal struggle, when two man-eating lions stalk the Uganda Railroad construction.

Many of the diabolical encounters in the movie have a real-life late 19th Century corollary. Those lions are of course an aberration compared with nearly all other lions, but they can nevertheless be viewed today in the Chicago Field House Museum. Their time spent as rugs, however, has hurt the effects of the taxidermy.

Chris Chiarella (Sound & Vision)

Survival against the elements has resonated with me since I was a kid. Maybe it has something to do with the contrast of my boring life, sitting on my comfy couch while some stranger has to sleep outside and eat bugs. (Not a fan of ‘Survivor’, though.) I vaguely recall a couple of made-for-TV movies in this genre, and my admiration of the resourcefulness of the plucky protagonists, albeit scripted of course.

One that has stuck with me for a number of years is 1971’s ‘Man in the Wilderness‘, a period piece wherein a guide (Richard Harris) is left for dead by the trappers/traders in his party following a vicious bear attack. Against the odds, he survives, but he’s alone and stranded… and out for revenge? Along his journey he looks inside himself while using his outdoor skills to battle harsh forces, regaining his strength and tracking his erstwhile comrades. Fine performances by Harris and John Huston as his nemesis deepen the underlying drama, and the pristine scenery is quite lovely.

Josh Zyber

Man’s struggle against the cold, cruel indifference of the natural world is a recurring theme throughout many works by Werner Herzog. Some of his best include ‘Fitzcarraldo‘, the documentary ‘Grizzly Man’, and his masterpiece ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God‘.

‘Aguirre’ was Herzog’s first collaboration with tempestuous star Klaus Kinski. The two were close friends, clashed constantly in vicious feuds, and almost always brought out the best in each other. The film follows a group of Spanish Conquistadors who travel down the Amazon River to find the mythical city of El Dorado. While the men are greedy for gold, their leader Aguirre lusts for fame, glory and an immortal place in history. As they travel further into the jungle and away from civilization, they stray deeper into despair and madness. In plot, the movie may seem like a very simple tale. However, among other things it’s really about religion, slavery, greed, ambition, and the thin line separating civilized behavior from insanity – all illustrated with the director’s mastery of the cinematic metaphor. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

What are your favorite movies on this theme? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. Csm101

    The Edge is a fantastic man vs nature film. I also agree with Ghost and the Darkness. When the hell are we going to get that on blu!!!??? I went to Chicago last year and got to see those two lions in the Field Museum and it was one of the highlights of my trip. That museum is amazing! I guess I’ll go with Castaway. I thought it was a very unique theatrical experience at the time and except for the FedEx commercial at the begining, it was one of my favorite DVDs that I use to watch repeatedly.

  2. Bolo

    I always loved the stop motion telling of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’. Rudolph and the Elf Dentist’s exile in the treacherous arctic environment is full of fun adventure. The most memorable being the part where they team up with Yukon Cornelius to trap and de-fang a Yeti. And of course, Rudolph using his glowing nose to help Santa navigate through a blizzard at the end is an excellent hero moment.

    It’s a great telling of a great story and also has some great songs from Burl Ives. ‘Silver & Gold’ being my favourite.

        • Josh Zyber

          It was also about the two of them versus a bear. I haven’t seen Ravenous, so I’m genuinely asking and not trying to be sarcastic, but I thought the antagonists in that movie were cannibals, not nature. Am I wrong?

          • Chris B

            You are correct Josh Z. The main villain(s) in Ravenous are murderous cannibals. The film IS set at a remote outpost during the Spanish-American war, so the film does have a wilderness/harsh winter vibe about it, but the antagonists are human.

            The Edge on the other hand does indeed have a subplot about whether or not Baldwin is sleeping with Hopkins’ wife, but the main conflict in the film is both men trying to survive in the wilderness (and outwit a ferocious bear) after a plane crash.

            Both great movies, however Ravenous doesn’t seem to much fit the criteria of this particular roundtable IMHO.

            P.S. You should make an effort to see Ravenous asap, it’s a unique and underrated gem of a movie.

          • Chris B

            I own it and wouldn’t call it “terrible”, it’s definitely on the softer side and not one of the better looking catalog discs I’ve watched but it’s far from the worst. It’s adequate enoughtto watch and enjoy the movie.

          • Csm101

            Hey Josh, if you have Netflix streaming, it’s on there. Although they show it in
            16:9 instead of 2:35. It’s a great movie with an awesome soundtrack, kind of quirky, sometimes dark. It’s kind of man vs cannibalistic urges. 🙂

          • Chris B

            I agree, the soundtrack is totally unique for that type of film and one of my favorite things about the movie. I actually think it was conposed by Damon Albarn of Blur which would explain the more contemporary feel…

  3. Bolo

    I also thought ‘Tracks’ was good. It was a very faithful adaption of Robyn Davidson’s memoirs about her trek across the deserts of Western Australia. The film has very nice cinematography in an attempt to recreate the photography of Rick Smolan who photographed Davidson’s trek for National Geographic magazine.

    What I liked most about the book was Davidson’s ability to recapture her own state of mind. How being alone in a treacherous environment for months at a time effects one’s mood and how quickly one abandons the contrivances of socially acceptable behaviour. She frequently had trouble dealing with people when she did meet them because she’d lost touch with civilization. Mia Wasikowska gave a really good performance as Davidson, not trying to make her likeable or obviously heroic.

    It’s a good flick, worth checking out.

  4. C.C.

    I loved the underrated ALIVE with Ethan Hawke directed by Spielberg producer Frank Marshall. A great uplifting film.
    An underrated Disney picture also comes to mind- NEVER CRY WOLF with Charles Martin Smith and Brian Dennehy directed by The Black Stallion’s Carroll Ballard. A great story of a researcher surviving the arctic while studying wolves.
    Also, a chestnut from the past that some may not know of- ANTARCTICA. A Japanese film about sled dogs who were left to fend for themselves when a horrible storm separates them from their masters.
    Amazing soundtrack by Vangelis (right after he did BLADERUNNER), and killer cinematography.
    And also- about INTO THE WILD – you DO realize that dude DIED because he was a moron, right?

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