Society of the Snow (now on Netflix) revisits what many of us previously saw in 1993’s Alive, the harrowing based-on-a-true-story (BOATS) saga about members of a Uruguayan rugby squad who survived a plane crash in the Andes, and staved off starvation for more than two months in a freezing-cold environment by cannibalizing dead passengers. The new Spanish-language film, directed and co-written by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), takes a slightly different approach, using as its basis the 2009 book Society of the Snow, by Uruguayan writer Pablo Vierci, a childhood friend of many of the survivors. Bayona’s thoughtful and visually dynamic movie finds some of us revisiting the real-life horror all over again, and being undeniably moved by it while simultaneously wondering if we needed to experience a fictionalized version of it a second time.
SOCIETY OF THE SNOW: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Roberto (Matias Recalt) won’t pass the dang ball. It squirted out of the scrum and now he runs and runs and runs with it but never dishes it off, perhaps in an act of foreshadowing and/or metaphor. For he and his college-buddy teammates are about to hop on a doomed flight to Chile for another match, but not before they’re subject to a Jesus-resurrection sermon – you know, 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, and all that, which is even more of a foreshadowy metaphor. Roberto is among the key players on the field and here in this movie, and I’ll highlight two others, Numa (Enzo Vogrincic Roldan), who voiceover-narrates a lot of what happens, and Nando (Augustin Pardella). They have to convince Numa to join them, because this might be the last time they go on a sporting trip together before they go on with the rest of their lives, and yes, now we’ve got ourselves some hardcore tragic irony right here.
So there’s 40 passengers and five crew members on this flight. The young rugbyballers are educated fellas, med students and soon-to-be electrical engineers and such, skills they surely don’t expect to need on this excursion. One of them is smartypants enough to explain how flights like this forego as-the-crow-flies routes because the mountains are so high, although that means taking paths between the peaks – paths fraught with turbulence. Turbulence just like THIS: Passengers are jostled. Flight attendants urge the fastening of seat belts. Luggage bounces out of overhead compartments. An unbelted passenger literally hits the ceiling. Prayers spontaneously spew from mouths. Is this it? As in, the big IT? For some of them, yes – the tail of the plane disappears and the wings shear off and the seats rip free of the bolts securing them to the fuselage and bones crack and snap. It’s a terrifying scene.
Things don’t necessarily get any better from here, but it’s quieter. Subtitles begin counting days and acknowledging individuals’ deaths. The voiceover tells us the temperature drops 80 degrees at night, forcing survivors to huddle in the wrecked fuselage and stuff the open end with luggage to keep some of the frigid air out. They move the dead out of the plane and scavenge what they can. They experience an exquisite form of torture when they hear and see search-and-rescue airplanes overhead that cannot hear or see them, and here we get long, wide, expansive shots of the mountain range that renders their crash zone a tiny dot in the landscape. They yell at the planes but they might as well be shouting for help from the Moon. Days go by and the food is gone and they resort to eating shoelaces and cigarettes and then the unthinkable becomes thinkable, all too thinkable.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Bayona established his disaster-movie pedigree with 2012’s The Impossible. And Showtime’s grimly comic hit series Yellowjackets draws inspiration from the Andes-flight tragedy.
Performance Worth Watching: This is the thing: The film struggles to differentiate its many characters. But Numa, as the primary voiceover guy, gets the closest thing to an individual arc, and Roldan makes the most of a relatively emotionally affecting role.
Memorable Dialogue: Numa’s voiceover: “What was once unthinkable becomes routine.”
Sex and Skin: Brief male frontal nudity of the not-very-sexy kind.
Our Take: The aforementioned character issue is Society of the Snow’s most significant flaw. Some survivors are religious – their devout Catholicism is a key subtextual thread; what is the role of their god in this awful scenario? – and a few protest the cannibalism (on both moral and, somewhat amusingly, legal grounds) and some inevitably don’t make it to the end of the movie, but only a couple end up becoming something slightly more than pieces of the collective, and that’s after nearly two hours go by. So the emphasis is on the group, and of course we’re concerned about its survival, because we’re not terrible people – and Bayona isn’t a terrible filmmaker, not at all. He bolsters the story with considerable visual acumen, a foreboding sense of scale and setting, and his ability to craft sequences of significant dramatic intensity, including the crash and the avalanche that thunders down the mountain.
Bayona also leans heavily into the psychology of the situation, and shifts from the explicit graphicness of the plane crash to an indirect it’s-what-you-don’t-see-that’s-most-horrifying portrayal of cannibalism. (Two survivors volunteer to be the butchers, allowing the others a degree of separation from the nauseating source of their necessary nourishment.) He takes a moment to emphasize the awful, awful chewing that occurs, and as time passes, the characters and the audience just… acclimate. But in this unforgiving setting, there’s a limit to such acclimation, hence the urgency of this story, which sometimes meanders during a bloated middle act, but still maintains enough suspense to keep us watching, and invested – and, crucially, hopeful, because what is a survival story that doesn’t emphasize hope over despair? Even if we know how this ends, the inevitable catharsis is satisfying.
Our Call: Society of the Snow is by no means an Oscar-courting classic, but it’s a rock-solid drama that at least slightly improves upon Alive thanks to Bayona’s assured filmmaking. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.