I remember the chatter surrounding “Alive” when it first hit theatres in 1993. Well, it was just two points really, the plane crash and the meat eating. Human meat as we soon discovered, some of us with protein shivers as we watched it on the big screen, some of us later on VHS or Beta lying on its deathbed. But others were already in the know, those long familiar with this true story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes enroute to Chile. By the end of their 72-day ordeal, 29 people had died and 16 had survived, partly by turning to cannibalism, partly through the courage of teammate Nando Parrado.
The film opens strongly with a burst of credibility from John Malkovich as an older Carlitos Páez, one of the survivors. He introduces the team with the help of a photo slideshow and straightens our backbones with lines like, “That’s Alex Morales. He died instantly,” and “…until you’re in a situation like that, you have no idea how you’ll behave.” It’s a terrific set-up from screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, statements that raise questions that we want answered immediately. And the filmmakers waste no time. In the very next shot, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 comes into frame above with the Andes below.
True tale or not, the movie is never more effective than Páez’ set-up, the crash and the confused scramble immediately after. The cabin lies severed from the tail and wings, its occupants dazed and twisted in the wreckage. It’s here that we meet a dozen or so characters that will carry us through to different stages in the story. Some will die quickly, others gradually and some not at all. It’s hard to know who and when. But thanks to a past glut of disaster epics, we can at least predict what their first survival moves will be: attending to the wounded, assessing the environment, marshaling available resources and establishing communications. Nothing is in their favor. Nights are sub-zero, food is rationed into chocolate squares and cap-fulls of wine, and the aircraft’s precious batteries are lost along with the tail. Their only hope is a rescue, which they monitor on a crackly radio.
“Alive” was directed by Frank Marshall (“Arachnophobia”), better known as the producer of some of Spielberg’s biggest hits (“Indiana Jones,” “Back to the Future”), and is full of faces you’re more likely to recognize than name: Illeana Douglas (“Cape Fear”), Josh Hamilton (“With Honors”), Josh Lucas (“Poseidon”) and Vincent Spano (“Rumble Fish”) as the rugby captain who takes the reigns after the crash. The performances are adequate given the material, notably Spano and Hamilton as a capable med student. The emotional bases are covered on the surface, from anger and confusion to shame, but with a script that seems uninterested in characterization, it’s difficult to connect. As Newsweek’s David Ansen puts it, “Marshall … downplays the fascinating sociological details—and the ambiguities of character—in favor of action, heroism and a vague religiosity that’s sprinkled over the story like powdered sugar.”
As Parrado, Ethan Hawke (“Dead Poet’s Society”) stands the best chance of bridging this gap. He awakens from a crash-induced coma to find his mother dead and his sister critically injured (though contrary to the film, she could not speak). After she dies, he vows to escape. I have not read the book that the film is based on, Piers Paul Read’s “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,” but after reading some reviews of another book, Nando Parrado’s “Miracle in the Andes,” I can’t help but think that the movie had passed on something significant, the chance to deepen the story specifically through his character. The following is a quote from Parrado I’m hoping is accurate. I’ve pulled it not directly from his book but a review on it.
“I felt a sharp and sudden longing . . . for the warm, strong embrace of my father. . . . It staggered me: The mountains, for all their power, were not stronger than my attachment to my father. They could not crush my ability to love. . . . Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love. . . . For a brief, magical moment, all my fears lifted, and I knew that I would not let death control me. . . . I would walk until I had walked all the life out of me, and when I fell I would die that much closer to my father.”
In fairness, the book was not published until 2006, but even archival film footage of Parrado after his rescue points to that personal fire that drove him. In the film it’s smothered, possibly by powdered sugar. The filmmakers do shift the focus to Nando in the second half of the movie, as Antonio begins to wilt under pressure and an avalanche whittles their hopes to a splinter. He slowly comes to the forefront, not to lead the group but to show iron will in the face of any obstacle, including a last desperate exodus across the Andes. This is not a job for Hawke though. He’s a likable actor but not known for his intensity, quiet or otherwise.
The actual descriptions of their climb through the Andes are incredible, more so knowing they didn’t have the proper clothing, experience or gear. That the movie cuts these scenes off at the knees then is mind boggling, leaving us to only imagine what scaling the Andes to freedom would be like. I can venture a guess at the omission: money, time or logistics. Unfortunately imagining is not enough, and reducing that final push to freedom to a mere camera rushing across the Andes is like deflating a balloon. Picture the recent “127 Hours” with an abbreviated ending. Aron Ralston (James Franco) climbs, is trapped, sweats, suffers, amputates his arm and….happy ending. Uh-uh. Finish the story.
The good news is that a better dramatization has already been made. The 2009 documentary “Stranded: the Andes Plane Crash Survivors” blends re-enactments, photos and on-camera interviews with the 16 survivors more than 30 years later. It’s a different approach to telling the story of course, invaluable in that the experience comes straight from the mouths of the affected. On the subject of eating the deceased, one of the men reveals that “Our friends were in our memories, our spirits. This had nothing to do with our feelings for them. Incredible, isn’t it, how you can get beyond that?” But the doc is also an example of how creative choices alone can deepen a story for an audience. Its floating camera-work, dream-like music and editing help to do something that the Marshall film can’t, make us feel that this is exceptional. We already know that it is.