Twenty-five Movies About Being Crammed into a Tight Space

Legends of shut-in-ema

In the Ren & Stimpy episode “Big Flakes,” our heroes are snowed in at a tiny cabin through the spring thaw, growing beards and eating calendar pages with shaving cream. The wacky story isn’t too far from reality: people get squirrely in isolation and confinement in a tight space. They spill their marbles, mangle themselves, violate their own ethics, establish sadistic power dynamics, and torture the hapless. And that’s just Home Alone.

Home Alone

So we’re all cooped up at home and irradiating our worried faces with our phones and saturating TikTok with fresh hell and not quite sick of streaming entertainment yet. Maybe you didn’t ask for a crisp listicle of shut-inema for these trying times, but just like everything else right now, you’re stuck with it. Here are 25 movies that play with the tension of crisis and space.

Trapped In A Crowd

Phonebooth. A movie that explains what Colin Farrell and phonebooths are to Gen-Z. Farrell is a sleazy New York PR guy trapped inside the tight space of a phonebooth, and not one of the good ones with cash flying everywhere, but one where a vigilante sniper will kill you unless you…confess your general crappiness to the world? Honestly all I remember is Kiefer Sutherland’s sinuses whistling through the phoneline, Farrell’s sadboi eyebrows, and the distinct feeling that his best acting was not in being a douche, but being sorry for it. Forest Whitaker is great though.

The Stanford Prison Experiment. Based on a real-life 1971 psychology experiment that went very bad.  In a two-week simulation to study power dynamics, researches randomly split students  into groups of nine “guards” and nine “prisoners” in a mock prison in Stanford’s psych building. The director encouraged the “guards” to depersonalize and dominate the “prisoners” and most of them sadistically embraced their roles. The experiment went to some pretty twisted places and academics still hotly debate its results. The unsettling 2015 movie develops the dark psychology behind these social dynamics. Note: this is not a great quarantine activity for children.

Tight Space

The Mist. In this 2007 Iraq War-era film, the military is to blame when monsters escape their hell dimension to eat the good people of Earth, trapping a group of shoppers in a grocery store. The people quickly split into super-rationalists, cautious skeptics, and one cartoonishly stereotypical Bible thumper who garners a cult following as the Tribulation-style craziness unfolds. It’s hard to root for people who take a full 30 minutes into the film to realize the entire front of the building is plate glass, but it’s well worth the watch for the last scene alone: one of the best-worst i’ve ever seen and it will upset you if you want a satisfying ending.

Rear Window. A wheelchair-bound photographer (Jimmy Stewart) spends his days perving out a window when he sees what he thinks is a murder in another apartment. With drones and Facebook detective groups still decades in the future, he must use his wits (and his fully-mobile girlfriend Grace Kelly) to solve the mystery. The heat of an urban summer, the leg cast, the pressure to marry Kelly, and the squabbles of people living on top of one another all come to a boil in a scene that reminds us that flash photography is always the real villain.

Stuck In Space

Space

The Martian. Matt Damon gets stuck on Mars when his crew presumes him dead in a storm and ditches him. Then he tries to grow potatoes and it gets a boring Future Farmers of America vibe for about 45 minutes. Before moviegoers could google inaccuracies in specialized knowledge, 90’s space movies could pass off nonsense lines like “Pack-drop the REV-322 into the quantum-comidifier and phase-detract that entabulator before it resynchronizes the unifier spectrum – and do it NOW!!” The Martian’s writers integrated realistic science with analog skills and old-school data systems to help Damon survive in space.

Moon. Sam Rockwell is a lunar driller about to head home from space after three solitary years, until his vehicle crashes and traps him out on the surface. Strange memories and visions are just the beginning of a surreal trip that bends time and identity in his search for home. Rockwell brings a Hitchhiker’s lightness to an otherwise heavy space opera.

Adrift

Lifeboat. In this classic 1944 Hitchcock joint, Americans and Brits are stuck in a lifeboat in the Atlantic after Nazis torpedo their ship. They fish with jewelry and cut off a gangrenous leg. But tensions rise further when they rescue a German U-boat captain who may have ulterior motives. Despite the limited cast and set, Hitchcock still makes his cameo–in a newspaper weight-loss ad.

The Poseidon Adventure. A tidal wave capsizes a posh party liner and its passengers must dodge electrocution, drowning, and flames to reach help. It’s a wild swerve on the modern cruise experience, where guests face dangers like room-temperature shrimp and watered-down mai tais (although Coronavirus is now upping that ante). The film features intense performances by Ernest Borgnine, a sooty Gene Hackman and Leslie Nielsen, whose next disaster movie was a bit lighter.

Open Water. A snorkeling tour boat mistakenly leaves a couple floating gams-down in shark-infested waters miles from shore, and they bicker and pee to keep warm until things get really horrifying. They filmed this low-budget hit in a real shark-infested ocean, and the water-level camera work gets my toes tingling with every splash. Based on the chilling true story of a couple who vanished off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 after a dive-boat crew left them stranded, it’s a solid reminder that maybe this travel ban isn’t so bad after all.

Castaway

Castaway. “If you were stranded on a desert island with one celebrity, who would it be?” Tom Hanks auditions for this spot when his plane crashes and strands him on a South Pacific island: he comes with a load of FedEx boxes, a DIY attitude, and crude dental skills. But the human drama that unfolds after all the danger makes it unique among survival films.

Lord of the Flies 1963. Here’s another book-to-film to avoid if you’re home with children. (Cross The Blue Lagoon off the list too.) A wartime evacuation plane filled with kids crashes on a desert island and a brutal new society forms in the absence of grownup rules. Its neat, teachable tropes have made it a favorite on required school reading lists for 70 years, but the unsettling film adaptation will make you side-eye your own little savages.

The Boonies

Buried.Ryan Reynolds plays an American contractor in Iraq who wakes up in a leaky coffin after an insurgent attack, with only a cell phone and a lighter to save himself before the sand suffocates him. The shoot was so intense Reynolds developed a bald patch and insomnia, and even non-claustrophobes will find their palms getting slick. Reynolds has shown his dramatic range in films like The Nines and The Captive, and anyone who can sit through a suspenseful 95 minutes filmed entirely in a coffin with him will be both traumatized and impressed.

Misery Tight Space

Misery. A cautionary tale about our deep emotional investment in fiction, and one very unproductive writer’s retreat. In her first film role, Kathy Bates is a psychotic fan who rescues her favorite author (James Caan) when his car crashes near her isolated house. It’s all turtlenecks and straightrazor shaves until she finds out he’s killing off her favorite character from his novels and plotting to escape, so she breaks the dirty birdie’s ankles to force a rewrite. The notorious hobbling scene set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata still makes my shins ache, and if that’s where my cockadoodie writing career might take me then i’ll stick to stealing copper.

The Shining.We all know this classic ghost story set in the creepy mountain hotel: mother and young son must escape the trauma of an abusive alcoholic whose inner demons are catnip to the local ghouls. But it takes on even darker shadows when watched in today’s context of people trapped in quarantine with their abusers.

127 Hours. James Franco plays a real-life hiker who saws off his arm with a dull knife when a boulder falls and traps him in a remote Utah canyon. He describes feeling joyful when he realizes he can snap his own bones to escape, a twisted epiphany not lost on Costco shoppers these days. Those reluctant to embrace the idea of wilfully cranking their arm in half to survive should be glad to stay indoors.

Alive. The true story of plane crash survivors in the Andes mountains in 1972, and the stomach-churning extremes they endure. I read the book as a teen (take that, Babysitter’s Club!) and their months-long ordeal absolutely blew me away. No one rescued them in the traditional sense: two of the starving survivors hiked for ten days through the Andes to reach civilization. Read the book, then watch the movie. You’ve got time.

The Future Is Lonely

The Road,A young boy and his father travel through an ashy, post-apocalyptic United States to reach a warmer climate before winter, battling starvation, robbers, cannibal gangs and despair. The fatalism of the mother’s death, the withered landscape, lack of character names, the father’s steady cough, and cycles of deprivation filmed in grayscale made this movie a grind, but Viggo Mortensen’s haunting narration of Cormac McCarthy’s writing is worth the watch.

I Am Legend.Will Smith is a smart army scientist trying to cure the world after a virus turned everyone into screeching nocturnal mutants and left him alone to hit golf balls off aircraft carriers and hunt deer in Times Square. Smith parlayed his goofy teen charisma into a profitable career by focusing on action and sci-fi films, but I Am Legend doesn’t feel like he’s just drawing another paycheck. The sensitivity and pathos behind even the frightening scenes are the humanist answer to bleaker films like The Road.

Alien.There’s nowhere to run in space, and it doesn’t get any more in-your-face than an acid-drooling alien literally inches from your sweaty cheek (Alien 3, but still). Sigourney Weaver finds herself crammed into closets, space suits and narrow hallways to escape one mother of a space-demon that traps her crew in its nest. H.R. Giger’s low-ceilinged, womblike set designs and Ridley Scott’s tight shots ratchet up the claustrophobic tension.

Just the Ladies

The Woman in the Window. A lady version of Rear Window, so lots more gaslighting. Amy Adams is a pilled out agoraphobe who sees a woman stabbed to death in the home across the street and does her own detective work when no one believes her. They say you shouldn’t snoop, and Adams learns the hard way that the real space she’s terrified to navigate is her own brain. Gary Oldman is great though.

Grey Gardens. This 1975 documentary visits the decrepit home of Jackie Kennedy’s oddball aunt and cousin, Big Edie and Little Edie. The women dropped out of Hamptons society and retreated from the world after running low on money and sanity, sharing their filthy house with raccoons and feral cats and razzing one another. Little Edie is transfixing as she drifts around wearing headscarves and singing in a girlish falsetto, reliving her modeling days in an unhinged trans-Atlantic accent. There’s a lot to say about the disposability of talented women, mental illness, social issues and codependence, but the Edies’ story is deeply moving in its plain unvarnished telling.

The Others

The Others. This creepy period film finds Nicole Kidman stuck in a remote English mansion with her two photosensitive children, waiting for her husband to come back after World War II. After a series of nebulous encounters she becomes convinced something is haunting the home; but the fog clears with a wrenching twist in the final scene. The Spanish-directed film is a close genre cousin to The Orphanage, but Kidman’s costumes alone are worth the viewing.

Gerald’s Game. A man dies of a heart attack while getting frisky with his wife in a secluded cottage. The problem? She’s still handcuffed to the bed. The audience suffers her hallucinations and seat-squirming contortions to stay hydrated as she confronts dark memories, and one slippery choice in the film’s most infamous scene.

Cujo. A rabid St. Bernard terrorizes a mom and her son trapped in their broken down car in the middle of nowhere. Stephen King unspools his simple story into a terror-thon thanks to a hysterical child actor broiling in a filth-spattered car, his desperate dehydrated mother, and thematic shards of abuse and betrayal. It also includes a vintage cereal commercial with the tagline “nope, nothing wrong here!”

Panic Room. Jodie Foster is richer than you: feast your eyes on the sweet steel box she’s trapped in with her daughter (Kristen Stewart) when intruders break into their huge NYC brownstone. Burglars gonna burgle, but mom and cub use their prepper resources to fight off Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto with cornrows and Dwight Yoakam who is somehow named Raoul. Foster is solid in the worried mom role and Stewart’s in her wheelhouse as she drifts in and out of diabetic lethargy.

Rachel Llewellyn

Rachel Llewellyn is a saucy media mercenary who's worked at Curve Magazine and Girlfriends Magazine in San Francisco, and ghost-edited two noir novels. She's also translated academic material, written corporate website content, taught adult school, and produced morning television news. Rachel lives in Bakersfield, California, where she hikes with her dog and pushes paper in the government sector.

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