Society of the Snow (Spain, 2023)

December 18, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Society of the Snow Poster

Although Society of the Snow is not technically a remake of the 1992 film Alive, it’s not hard to see how this could be assumed. Although the films are based on different books (Alive’s source is Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read; Society of the Snow’s basis is La sociedad de la nieve by Pablo Vierci), they cover the same factual events from 1972 featuring the same characters. Both movies claim the involvement of one or more of the survivors as advisors. Many of the strengths of Alive are true of Society of the Snow but some of the less successful elements in the earlier film are either not evident in the new one or have been improved upon. As such, while both movies are effective, Society of the Snow represents the stronger telling of the courageous story of survival.

It's October 1972 and the men of Stella Maris College’s Old Christians rugby team are boarding a chartered flight heading from Uruguay to Chile, where an upcoming match will be held. There are 45 souls on board – 5 crew and the team’s members, friends, and family. While crossing the Andes, the flight encounters turbulence and, when the pilots lose control of the plane, it crashes into a mountain. 12 people are either ejected from the plane when the rear of the fuselage is blown open or fail to survive the impact. More deaths follow in the near-term as the healthy survivors care for the injured. The immediate life-threatening situation is the brutal cold but, over days, as the meager supply of snacks is depleted, the question of food becomes paramount…especially when the passengers learn (via a radio broadcast they are able to hear) that rescue efforts have been suspended for at least two months.

Society of the Snow is first and foremost a man-versus-nature tale about the improbable survival of 16 people who outlast the elements for 72 days. The weather throws numerous challenges at them, including bitter cold and an avalanche that buries the intact portion of the fuselage (which has become a makeshift survival station) under the snow. Then there’s the decision by the survivors to consume the bodies of the dead as a means of sustenance. The act of cannibalism is something that no one takes lightly, even when the living agree that, should they die, permission is granted to the others to use their bodies for food.

Both Alive and Society of the Snow handle the cannibalism aspect with intelligence and sensitivity. It is not presented graphically or for sensationalistic purposes. To the survivors, it’s a matter of necessity – go down that path and live or refuse and die. They struggle with the moral implications, however. Director J.A. Bayona is circumspect in what he shows. We see slivers of meat that might be raw chicken and there are some brief, distant glimpses of skeletons half-buried in the snow.

Some viewers will know ahead of time what to expect, even if they’re unfamiliar with the earlier version. This wasn’t an obscure news story, even though it happened 50 years ago. Nevertheless, the ordeal is presented with ample dollops of suspense and tension, especially when it tracks the efforts of two survivors, Roberto Canessa (Matias Recalt) and Nando Parrado (Agustin Pardella), on a lengthy trek to find help. The cinematography presents a vista of unimaginable beauty and great isolation.

One notable difference between Alive and Society of the Snow is that the new film features ethnically accurate performers speaking Spanish. One criticism leveled against Alive related to the decision to hire white American actors – Ethan Hawke as Nando and Josh Hamilton as Roberto – and have the dialogue in English.  Although those decisions were easily defended from a commercial perspective, the new film’s choices lend an added layer of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Despite the “foreign language” designation for Society of the Snow, Barona came to the project with Hollywood A-list credentials, having previously helmed A Monster Calls and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. This movie is close kin to The Impossible, his 2012 film about survival in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. Society of the Snow is a more harrowing and compelling story but there are similarities around the edges. Gifted with a surprisingly large budget (reportedly ~$70M), Bayona is able to effectively recreate not only the crash but the dangers faced by the survivors while seamlessly incorporating on-location footage with studio-based material. The remarkable accomplishment results in a breathtaking motion picture that enthralls across the length of its 140+ minute running time.

Society of the Snow (Spain, 2023)