Frank Marshall’s film “Alive” has never exactly been a classic, but for a certain bracket of moviegoers who saw it in 1993, it remains a vivid memory. A heart-in-mouth recreation of the 1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash — from which 16 people eventually survived 72 days stranded in a remote, snowy stretch of the Andes in western Argentina, while 29 perished — it visualized the events past the remit of worldwide news reports and magazine stories. For those of us too young to remember, it became our first point of contact with the saga, triggering countless aerophobic nightmares and “what would you do” discussions relating to its most lurid details.
“Alive” was well enough made and well enough acted to stick, yet it never felt ideal that such preppy all-American actors as Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton, speaking in Yank-accented English, became the faces of this South American story in the popular imagination. That’s one solid reason for J.A. Bayona to retell the tale — with an unstarry, fully Spanish-speaking cast — in his brawnily effective tear-jerker “Society of the Snow,” which grips with alternating waves of dread, horror and heart-swelling relief, even as it can hardly surprise. Another is the source this time: Uruguayan journalist Pablo Vierci’s 2009 book of the same title, which was written in collaboration with multiple survivors of the crash and, using their more intimately detailed first-hand accounts, attempts to grant a perspective to both the living and the dead.
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Bayona’s film tries the same tricky maneuver, unexpectedly taking as its protagonist and narrator not one of the disaster’s most prominent survivors, but a noble casualty: Numa Turcatti (Uruguayan actor Enzo Vogrincic), a 24-year-old law student who acts as a kind of moral conscience for the collective, both before and beyond the grave. Some viewers may question the seemliness of speculatively writing a dead man’s final testimony — “Today, my voice carries their words,” says Numa in voiceover, claiming to speak for all souls who either left or were left on the mountain — but those who permit “Society of the Snow” that dramatic license may well be taken with its nuanced, non-denominational spiritualism, which further distinguishes it from the more straightforwardly inspirational adventure brief of the previous film.
Which is not to say that Bayona skimps on the action element: As you would expect from the Spanish director of 2012’s Indian Ocean tsunami drama “The Impossible,” he once again pulls off a rattlingly visceral reconstruction of a real-life catastrophe, pummelling the audience with formal pyrotechnics for throat-grabbing you-are-there effect, before shifting focus to the devastated personal crisis of it all. Joining that special subset of films that will never under any circumstances appear on an in-flight entertainment menu, “Society of the Snow” spends minimal time on basic character-introducing courtesies before launching into one of the more horribly believable air-accident sequences ever captured on screen — as the charter plane carrying members of the local Old Christians Club rugby team, plus various friends, family and associates, departs Montevideo and soon, due to pilot error, begins a fatally premature descent.
Advanced digital effects and Jaume Marti and Andrés Gil’s whiplash editing kick into overdrive as the plane collides with the mountain, shearing into pieces as it tumbles and slides down a glacier, seats and bodies piling forward like dominoes. Rallying here from the relatively anonymous genre motions of 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” Bayona again proves himself an expert orchestrator of big, tactile set pieces. (Still, certain nervous viewers may prefer to limit the impact of this Netflix release on a smaller screen.)
But while the film is lustrously shot on location in the Andes and Spain’s Sierra Nevada region — with DP Pedro Luque Briozzo Scu rendering snow and skin alike in varying shades of polar blue, relative to the blazing white of the winter sun — its remaining two hours rest more on Bayona’s aptitude for broadly emotive human storytelling, boosted by a typically maximalist score from Michael Giacchino that throws frantic percussion and a keening choir in alongside the ample strings. As the surviving passengers must weather literal storms, avalanches and physical ailments, losing more of their number along the way, their tightening camaraderie becomes their principal life force.
Well, that and the flesh of the deceased: traditionally the most sensationalized aspect of the story, and here portrayed in the most restrained, pragmatic way possible. There’s more discussion and debate around the group’s last-resort turn to cannibalism — with Numa the longest and staunchest holdout, concerned about a lack of consent from the dead — than there is any depiction of the act, bar the odd pink shred of meat held gingerly in the hand. In the wake of TV’s “Yellowjackets,” the grislier side of this survival strategy hardly needs revisiting. “Society of the Snow” remains chiefly interested in its personal dynamics, with a scene where several among the living formally declare their willingness to be consumed after death among the film’s most moving.
Unable to wrangle so many players into a workable dramatic structure, the script — by Bayona and three co-writers — finally settles on Numa, his best friend Nando (Agustín Pardella) and intrepid med student Roberto (Matías Recalt) as its principals, though it finds methodical ways to honor the group: every casualty is formally listed on screen as the film progresses, while at the point of rescue, a verbal listing and repeating of all the survivors’ names is pointed and rousing. Nando and Roberto, who trek eastwards towards Chile in search of help, may be the notional heroes, but the film is rather poignant in its resistance, against the conventional rules of screenwriting, to singling them out as such. It’s up to the individual whether to see this story as a miracle or a tragedy, Numa says in voiceover; Bayona’s film, for all its forceful feeling, doesn’t decide for us.
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