‘Society of the Snow’ Turns 1972 Andes Plane Crash Into a Searing Experience of Survival

The story of the 1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash into the Andes has been known as one of the great survivalist stories of modern times. The incident remains best known for involving desperate survivors resorting to cannibalism, in order to make it through brutal conditions. But only now in “Society of the Snow” has the story received a definitive film treatment. Spanish director J.A. Bayona has made a harrowing cinematic experience that never loses sight of the human element, even as we feel every crushing sensation of extreme temperatures, hunger and despair. Finally, this story is put on screen with the necessary scope required for such a colossal tale of endurance. 

Tragedies of this scale tend to begin where least expected. The main subjects are a team of Uruguayan rugby players who gather for a trip to Chile. Most of them are university students, some motivated by the youthful thrill of seeing a new city and meeting girls. A key narrator is Numa Turcatti (Enzo Vogrincic Roldán), who introduces the audience to the main beats of how it all happened. As the team flies over the Andes, expecting to land soon in the Chilean capital of Santiago, the pilot makes one quick error and the plane crashes into a snow-covered mountainous area. A portion of the passengers die, including the pilot. The survivors are left dazed and injured, realizing they are now isolated in the vast expanse of the cordillera. What matters now is immediate survival as the remaining passengers gather in what’s left of the plane, wondering how to get food, fuel and most importantly, let the outside world know they’re still alive.

This story has been filmed before, almost from the moment the world learned what happened. There was the 1976 Mexican film, “Survive!” released in the U.S. with rather hilarious dubbing and visual effects, and a 1993 American production, “Alive.” Bayona’s film goes miles beyond those predecessors. Maybe this was just one of those stories where advancements in technology and even film watching culture needed to catch up to its demands. The movie was shot on location where the crash actually happened and never do we doubt the survivors are surrounded by the endless glacial landscape of the Andes. The cast is actually South American. Those who have been following Bayona’s career might be surprised to see his name at first glance. His first notable hit was 2007’s “The Orphanage,” a haunting ghost story set in Spain, produced by Guillermo Del Toro. He did another fantasy, “A Monster Calls” and even dabbled in big franchises with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (which looked great). Only his 2012 drama “The Impossible,” about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, hinted at his interest in a human disaster drama.

“Society of the Snow” combines the director’s skill for rich images with his command of intensity. On a non-crass level, this is at first a horror story in the purest sense of the word. The aim here is to put us in the moment as opposed to exploiting the carnage. When the plane crashes, cinematographer Pedro Luque and the special effects team starkly put on the screen the terrible realities of what the impact would do to human bodies. Later, there’s no hiding the impact of the extreme weather on human skin and teeth. Bayona doesn’t have to create cliché forms of suspense because it’s all there in the story. The screenplay by Bayona with Bernat Vilaplana, Jaime Marques and Nicolás Casariego is based on a book of the same name by Pablo Vierci, who has written extensively on the case and co-authored another book with one of the survivors. There is enough tension in the need to conserve food and body heat. Moments that seem like elation, when the survivors huddle in what’s left of the plane to play rhyme games, can be shattered by an avalanche crashing in.

Those familiar with the case will of course wonder first about how the movie depicts the infamous moments involving cannibalism. Despite everything that happened and how the survivors eventually found a way to be rescued, this story’s public image is defined by this extreme choice. Bayona, a director of horror and ghouls, does something intelligent and approaches it first from a wrenching human angle. The survivors form hierarchies based on age and team rank, but when it comes to deciding whether to eat those who have already died, they first discuss and argue the idea. Isn’t it the same as organ donation? Is it worth freezing to death just to avoid such a hard choice? Moments that would be fumbled by a lesser filmmaker have emotional pull here, as when some of the players let their teammates know they give them permission to feed on their bodies if they die. When we do see the flesh and consumption, the film shows it as a fact, without sensationalizing.

“Society of the Snow” runs at about 2 hours and 24 minutes and yet goes by faster than most bloated franchise movies. Bayona has made a film about survival that truly places us in the shoes of its characters. He gives every character just enough screen time to make us care and to see the differences in personalities. There are the determined and then those willing to even waste away as long as they don’t join everyone else in their shocking, yet understandable decision to survive. But mostly they were a pack of young people trapped in one of those terrible twists of fate, miraculously finding the will to make it out. We feel every step of the third act when a group decides they will venture across the frozen horizon and either find help or die trying. The period details are also meticulously added in, from the Latin American pop music we hear on the radio to the cigarettes. But up in the mountains, the world fades terribly away. By telling this story in all of its levels, “Society of the Snow” is the kind of adventure you won’t soon forget.

Society of the Snow” begins streaming Jan. 4 on Netflix.