In October of 1972, a chartered airplane carrying four dozen people including a Uruguayan rugby team and their friends and families crashed in the Andes. Those who weren’t killed upon impact or in the subsequent days and weeks from their accumulated injuries, exposure to the elements, or starvation survived for 72 days before 16 people were improbably rescued from the snow-covered mountain range after two of them made a weeks-long trek to neighboring Chile for help. The story made international news both as an inspiring account of perseverance against impossible odds as well as a source of enduring morbid curiosity once it was discovered that the survivors sustained themselves by eating the bodies of their dead compatriots. The incident gave rise to several books, including Pablo Vierci’s Society of the Snow (which lends this film its less than illuminating title), and even a major motion picture in 1993’s Alive, a modest hit distributed by Disney.
It being 30 years since that film was released (as well as 50 years since the crash), it’s not inconceivable that the subject matter would be revisited — a cable perennial throughout the ’90s, Alive is nobody’s idea of an unimpeachable work — especially as there was always something unseemly about the most South American of tragedies being anglicized, with the more prominent roles being portrayed by noted “Latin actors” Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton. Yet the barrier of familiarity remains high, and revisiting a topic this harrowing calls out for a distinctive perspective or counterintuitive take, neither of which are provided by filmmaker J. A. Bayona (who has some experience dutifully restaging a logistically demanding mass tragedy, having previously made The Impossible about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). The overarching shape of Society of the Snow is fundamentally identical to the ‘93 film. After briefly being introduced to the rugby players, all carefree and in the prime of their lives, we witness the inciting crash where the tail of the plane traumatically clips a peak, splitting the fuselage in half and flinging people to their deaths, before violently crashing into the snowy slope of a mountain, with metal seats crushing and puncturing many of those still alive. In the immediate aftermath, we watch scared survivors tend to the wounded and scrounge for food and warm clothing amidst the luggage, while contemplating how they might signal passing aircraft or even hike to safety in sub-freezing conditions. The cast, made up entirely of young unknowns — at least to most American viewers — blur together with visual and personality differentiation almost non-existent. Enzo Vogrincic Roldán’s Numa, a law student talked into making the trip at the last minute, is soon established as our audience surrogate and narrator, a storytelling device that makes increasingly less sense as the film progresses. Huddling together for warmth inside the plane’s hull for days on end, meager rations having dwindled down to nothing and with no realistic chance of rescue, the matter of how a couple dozen people will sustain themselves for months becomes paramount, with agonizing hunger pains crowding out conventional thoughts of morality.
Cannibalism remains a third rail outside the confines of exploitation films (and often even there), and how to broach the subject in this context is complicated. Dwell too long or in too graphic detail on the butchering and consumption of people — nay, your friends, teammates, and even relatives — and risk repulsing an audience primed for a triumph of the human spirit. Brush past it, and the film becomes guilty of sanitizing one of the most anguishing decisions a person can make. Whether to eat human flesh out of necessity is the central tension of Society of the Snow, arguably even more than the efforts to escape off the mountain, especially when informed by the devout Catholic faith of many of the Uruguayans. Yet the film is rather timid about the act itself, consigning all the unpleasantness to offscreen with Numa not only refusing to partake for longer than anyone else but keeping physical and emotional distance from the entire sordid but necessary business of processing the meat. In its understandable desire to honor the dead and not further exploit a tragedy, the film creates a permission structure to condone the actions — it’s as if they’re not really eating people, simply small wet clumps of protein, usually encased in snow — withholding the reveal of the scale and horrifying reality of what was required to survive until late in the film. But Society of the Snow still bends over backward to make the entire thing palatable, which feels at odds with the sacrifices made.
Bayona started his career as a horror filmmaker and protégé of Guillermo del Toro, but recently he’s been working as a hired gun on big-budget movies (he directed the middle chapter of the Jurassic World trilogy) and TV shows, and Society of the Snow plays more like the latter. The film alternates between sweeping vistas filmed amidst physically daunting locations — the film was shot, in part, in the very same region where the real plane crashed — and claustrophobic compositions; cramming dozens of people into the fuselage and filming with wide-angle lenses means the frame all but teems with humanity. There are some smart filmmaking choices here, including filming a deadly avalanche from the limited perspective of its victims, caught by surprise and buried under heavy, wet snow. But there is also a going-through-the-motions quality to the film, as though its only real purpose was to present this tale from a non-American point of view (Bayona is Spanish and this is Spain’s official entry for the International Oscar, so even its connection to Uruguay feels a little tenuous). And for all the downtime spent camped out amongst the wreckage, the film never really develops the characters or establishes any unique dynamics or interpersonal conflicts; it’s defined by a single-minded desire to live with the characters functioning as part of a large, faceless organism that slowly loses appendages.
It’s poor form to criticize a film for what it is not instead of what it is, but as this is well-trod material, one can still wish Society of the Snow had taken a different tack in telling this particular story. Specifically, as was the case in Alive, the film elides the media firestorm that awaited the survivors upon the world learning of their cannibalism, only exacerbated by their understandable attempts to obscure the truth. The judgment of outsiders (including viewers of the film) after enduring the unimaginable is a rich dramatic vein worthy of exploration. The idea of having to defend oneself from claims of barbarism or inhumanity while still grappling with the guilt of eating your friends is, frankly, devastating to ponder, but Bayona ignores it altogether, settling for comforting scenes of the emaciated men bathing months of filth from one another and embracing loved ones, set to the strains of Michael Giacchino’s recycled score from Lost. Whether it’s better to die while preserving your principles or betray a part of the soul to persist is at the center of Society of the Snow, but the question of who even has the right to judge such a decision or how one can live with themselves in the aftermath remains entirely unexamined. Clint Eastwood would have made a fantastic version of this.
DIRECTOR: J.A. Bayona; CAST: Enzo Vogrincic, Esteban Bigliardi, Agustín Pardella; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: December 22; STREAMING: January 4; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 24 min.