Everest, Hollywood's latest survival movie, sees an ensemble cast that would struggle to individually open a film struggle to survive on top of the titular mountain. Perhaps the hope is for an Expendables-style multiplier effect with Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin and Jake 'Where's my Oscar?' Gyllenhaal all stuck 29,029ft above sea level with dwindling supplies. Or, maybe, whoever really runs Tinseltown figures "let's Hunger Games this shit out - last bro still on the mountain gets a shot at a franchise."
But Alive, Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit already reached that summit in the 90s. Where the survival genre's at right now is space (Gravity, Interstellar). Not only are the visuals more puke inducing, but the situation's even more hopeless.
So in two week's time Matt Damon's getting dumped on Mars by loser friends in Ridley Scott's The Martian. While he's toughing it out on Big Red, it's up to another impressive ensemble cast you vaguely recognise to get Matty-boy back in time to kick ass in Bourne IV. [SPOILER ALERT] Yet, the average punter might be wondering why they are forking out their hard earned to see Damon stranded on a distant planet after already watching him go the full HAL 9000 on Matthew McConaughey in Intersteller. But there he is, surviving no matter what. [END OF SPOILER ALERT]
However, the title of ultimate movie survivor doesn't go to Damon, Clarke or Gyllenhaal. Nope. You might even think it could go to a genre as a whole. Say the superhero movie. After all, Ant-Man gobbled up over $170 million at the US box-office, and that film starred Paul Rudd. Next year, Ben Affleck will be Batman. Right there, casting decisions that are testament to the superhero genre's box office stamina. But nope, and nope again. The ultimate movie survivor is the survivor genre itself.
Hell, it can trace its routes back to Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944). Going back further, in 1719 the survival genre was kicked-off with what's widely considered a strong contender as the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe. That's endurance. If the superhero and survival genres were stuck in a cabin, under an avalanche, with only half a Mars bar and a flare gun between them ... well ... only one's coming out the door. And it ain't the one where Ryan Reynolds plays the Green Lantern.
Why is the survival genre a survivor? The obvious, 'well duh' answer is that it forces us to question what we ourselves would do in an extreme situation. Or, at least, provides questions to annoy co-workers with, such as: "Would you drink your own urine just to have enough energy to saw your trapped arm off?" Well James Franco's character did in 127 Hours. Or how about: "You survive a plane crash in the Andes, would you a) stretch out the remaining airplane meals or b) go straight to cannibalism?"
Cinemagoers want to live vicariously as relatable characters get put through the wringer. And when you want relatable, you cast Tom Hanks. Hanks had this genre down with Castaway and Apollo 13, still does with Captain Phillips. You want him to get through it because he is the closest thing we have to Jimmy Stewart. If Hanks bites it, then what does that say about the human spirit? Sandra Bullock has that going on in Gravity. No one wants to see America's sweetheart get sucked out an airlock. Damon's making a similar play in The Martian.
In a way, survival film plots are pre-formed pitches to Hollywood-execs. Plus, half of them are true stories, which gives them instant box-office draw. A segment on ABC's 20/20 inspired Open Water. Lone Survivor is based on an autobiography recounting a failed military operation in Afghanistan.
Gawping at the awfulness of it all is somehow legitimised because these movies are seen as hymns to the human spirit and our desire to survive, no matter how dire the situation. There's also money to be made. Last Christmas Unbroken, the incredible true story of Louis Zamperini, scored $110million at the US box office, while Gravity made north of $270million stateside. For Clarke, Brolin, Damon and Scott, sucking it up after a couple of duds probably makes sense when you're looking at a different kind of survival.