There’s been a mini trend of remaking stories first told by Hollywood, now given greater authenticity by appearing in the correct language for where the story is set. Last year it was Edward Berger’s German language retelling of All Quiet on the Western Front, more than 90 years after the Hollywood version won an Oscar for best picture. (That remake also ended up getting nominated for the top prize and winning four others.) It’s only been a 30-year gap between Alive, the 1993 Hollywood version of the story of a Uruguayan rugby team forced into cannibalism after their plane crashed in the Andes, and Society of the Snow, the Spanish language retelling of that story. Any good think piece editor will tell you that a trend only starts after three instances, so perhaps these two films should be treated as the isolated examples they are.
Director J.A. Bayona has been on both sides of this divide. He’s certainly had a high-profile trip through Hollywood, directing a Jurassic World movie as well as another story of survival, The Impossible – which, ironically, came under fire for having Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts portray a whitewashed incarnation of a Spanish family. No such worries this time around, as likely the entire cast of Society of the Snow will be unfamiliar to most audiences. In fact, only three of the more than 30 cast members even have their own Wikipedia page. This anonymity is just one element that allows us to fully sink ourselves into a disaster of unimaginable hardship and duration, whose survivors called themselves such only after eating the bodies of their teammates, friends and relatives.
The Old Christians rugby team comprised just part of the passenger manifest of the flight that took off from Montevideo, Uruguay, bound for Santiago, Chile, on October 13, 1972. In order to fill the plane to its 40-person capacity, some friends, relatives and others were invited along for what would be the last trip of many of their lives. The plane succumbed to turbulence and crashed into the side of a mountain, its wings and rear torn from the fuselage, which stayed intact enough to race down a snowy incline and leave 27 survivors with only relatively minor injuries. However, with their exact location unknown to rescue crews, and the conditions not supporting a successful search effort, the survivors quickly ran through a nominal amount of food – that is, those who survived freezing to death that first night.
Society of the Snow follows the characters as they make efforts to get the plane’s radio working, warm themselves, tend to injuries so they don’t become life-threatening, and most famously, feed themselves. With their dead fellow passengers preserved perfectly by the cold, the survivors had to overcome their moral misgivings and carve meat from the bodies to ingest for sustenance. A sturdy few prevented the others from needing to know which people they were eating at which times, and even this didn’t guarantee the survival of all of them before they were rescued.
The fact that they were rescued is, of course, not a spoiler, since otherwise we’d have no idea what actually took place during their marooning. The length of that marooning, if you don’t already know it, gives the film its sense of tension, as does trying to determine which of the characters you’ve met will still be standing at the end. Although this is, by nature, an ensemble story, Bayona and his trio of co-screenwriters do have to focus on certain individuals to increase our emotional investment in their survival. However, they’ve got a few unconventional tricks up their sleeve that prevent the audience from staying one step ahead of who will survive and who will not.
The technical commitment to documenting these events is astonishing. The average viewer has probably seen no fewer than one hundred plane crashes captured on film, but the one depicted in Society of the Snow is still striking for its distinctiveness. Although some details are necessarily speculative because the moment would have been too chaotic for anyone to remember it perfectly, Bayona relies on science and the internal layout of the cabin to reproduce it in gruesome detail. We see characters wedged between rows of seats as the impact drives them forward. We see lower legs snapped like twigs. We see objects and people thrown about the cabin and lost out the back that is now missing. It’s a jarring and confronting 30 seconds.
The man who made a movie called The Impossible shows us one impossible act of survival after another, but the interesting thing about Society of the Snow is it has plenty of time for the banal. There are times when it’s as though this might just be a big camping trip, with an unusual menu. There are others when characters are pleading for their lives and discussing whether it wouldn’t be better to just get there faster than to suffer God’s judgement for the sins committed to stay alive a little while longer. And for some, it was only a little while.
It’s easy to see why this story has more resonance with this group of no names, rather than acclaimed actors like Ethan Hawke assuming the roles. There’s one who looks like a young Patrick Dempsey, another who is reminiscent of Adam Driver. But these are and could be anybody, which allows us more easily to put ourselves in their places, and makes singling out any performances in this review an exercise without purpose. Let’s just say that if there’s any justice, some of these actors will be getting their Wikipedia pages in the near future.
Although the cannibalism is obviously the headline in Society of the Snow, it plays only a small role in making the film such a triumph. The unexpected horrors have the most shocking impact. At one point the fuselage is hit by an avalanche, taking more survivors out of the equation as suddenly they are buried in snow in addition to starving. One who emerged talks about his role in relation to one who didn’t, where he felt that person’s body buried in the snow beneath him, but couldn’t exert any weight on trying to get himself further clear because that would just drive his buried comrade deeper into the snow. And oh yeah, this buried comrade also happened to be his wife. Bayona has given us a depiction of a survival that seemed impossible, indeed.
Society of the Snow is currently streaming on Netflix.