Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The belated release of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno has us hankering for other movies about cannibalism. Bon appétit.
In 1972, a chartered airplane carrying a rugby team from the Christian Brothers College in Uruguay crashed into the Andes. The survivors of the crash endured over two months of freezing temperatures and a crippling lack of supplies, but some of them eventually made it to safety. Alive, the film based on Piers Paul Read’s book of the same name, offers an overview of the experience, rich in details without becoming immersive. The intimate (for an airplane) but sprawling (for a movie) passenger list includes the intrepid and restless Nando (Ethan Hawke), the more cautious medical student Roberto (Josh Hamilton), and team captain and self-selected leader Antonio (Vincent Spano). These three become the main characters by default, as the most familiar faces are surrounded by over a dozen other characters. (Notably, both Hawke and Hamilton would become Gen-X poster slackers just a few years later in the likes of Reality Bites and Kicking And Screaming. More regrettably, they’re both cast as South Americans here, though at least they don’t bother with any accents).
While the diffuse quality of the ensemble can be frustrating from a dramatic standpoint, it’s also refreshing to see a survival story that’s not reoriented to focus on an individual’s heroism. Most of the survivors have moments of both weakness and strength, and the film pays attention to the mechanics of their post-crash regrouping—mechanics that, eventually and unfortunately, include cannibalism. The fact that the survivors were forced to choose between starvation and eating the flesh of the dead is just one element of the story, but in its gruesome way it lends the movie additional, queasy urgency. It’s one thing for Nando to justify, with classic Hawke pontificating, the eating of the dead; it’s quite another to actually go through with it, a grim reality the movie doesn’t avoid.
The result is a fascinating mix of earnest (and, at times, prayer-heavy) survival story and just a smidge of shameless exploitation. Director Frank Marshall shows his roots as a longtime Steven Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment producer (he also helmed the delightful Arachnophobia and the less delightful Congo) with plane-crash and avalanche sequences that are harrowing in their suddenness, particularly the way that the crash swiftly reduces an airplane to a tiny, wingless shell. He also composes equally memorable, less effects-intensive shots of the survivors: tableaux of bodies huddled together in the plane, or lining up to take rations of wine and chocolate like communion. Screenwriter John Patrick Shanley may not quite nail the sense of spirituality he tries to tease out of the story, but at least the exploitation factor never overtakes it.
Availability: Alive is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and can be rented or purchased from the major digital services.