The story of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes Mountains has been told more than once on the big screen. The most notable of those is 1993’s Alive, which featured a mostly-white cast of rising star actors (including Ethan Hawke), and became known as that movie with all of the cannibalism. Leave it to us to reduce the harrowing tale of the crash survivors to something so basic. Fortunately, filmmaker J.A. Bayona teamed with journalist Pablo Vierci for Society of the Snow, a more authentic take on this incredible tale of survival and strength of the human spirit.
Most of us know the details already, but to be honest, until you’ve seen Society of the Snow you don’t have any real idea the extent of the suffering, the vast chasm of hopelessness the survivors had to cross. The flight carried 45 passengers, many of them members of the Old Christians rugby team, aged in their early 20s. All young men with their lives ahead of them. This was meant to be a simple flight to Chile, one last adventure before many of them would go on to have careers and to lead separate lives.
Then, the crash. It is unlike any plane crash you’ll ever see depicted in a motion picture. The violent savagery of the G-forces and the cold and the wind so sharp it cuts like a razor, the amount of damage it does to a human body is all captured with ugly detail by Bayona. The Spanish filmmaker has a knack for depicting the sheer terror of nature’s fury. Even after all of the movies he’s done, his best film to date remains survival thriller The Impossible, which will leave you slack-jawed in its depiction of a tsunami hitting land. At the screening I attended the gasps echoed throughout the theater as these young ruby players, their friends and family, were tossed about and torn to shreds. When it was over I realized I was holding my breath the entire time.
What Bayona understands better than most is the silence after such a traumatic event. Along with cinematographer Pedro Luque, Bayona reveals the quiet beauty and perilous nature of the snow-covered Andes. Wide shots establish eternal sheets of white, glistening under the sunlight jewel-like that under other circumstances they’d be astonishingly beautiful. But as the survivors, 29 after the initial crash, take stock of their surroundings there’s no beauty in it, only carnage and despair.
The tricky part is not letting the film fall so far into tragedy that it can never dig its way out. This being an ensemble affair, we are introduced to the passengers in brief snippets of their lives back home. More importantly is who they become after the crash. Some are natural born leaders, like Numa (Enzo Vogrincic), who more than any other could be considered a lead character. The team aspect of their previous lives comes into play in the building of their makeshift shelfter, and they become something closer than family. Still, as conditions worsen, and they definitely do, we see their faith tested in ways that are unimaginable. And yes, there comes a point when the lack of food leads the survivors to eat whatever flesh is available, but Bayona does not make a crass meal of this terrible thing they must do.
While a bit hefty at 2 hours and 20+ minutes, Society of the Snow rarely feels stuck in place. That’s quite a feat for a film that is largely set in the same patch of icy land. Michael Giacchino’s incredible score is a definite plus, in particular has knack for knowing when music is necessary and when it isn’t. Sometimes he hits you with a silence so deafening it’ll buckle your knees, only to hit you in the face with an emotional beat as the survivors overcome one unfathomable hardship after the next. It can be exhausting the hardship these people endure, and many times you’ll think this is one thing too many. But the human will to survive is resilient, made stronger by the bonds forged with others, and out of respect to those who are lost. And in those moments of triumph, Society of the Snow is tremendous for what it reaffirms about all of us.
Society of the Snow opens in theaters this December, followed by Netflix on January 4th 2024.