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Should I Watch..? 'Alive' (1993)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Alive is a biographical drama film released in 1993, and it is based on the real life tragedy of a plane crash in the Andes in 1972. Taking its cues from the 1974 book about the disaster by Piers Paul Read, the film follows a small group of survivors who experience unimaginable hardship and choices as their hopes for rescue dwindle amid the snow-capped mountains. The film is narrated by John Malkovich and stars Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton and Vincent Spano. The film benefitted from one of the survivors, Nando Parrado, serving as a technical advisor on set. Directed by Frank Marshall, the film would go on to earn more than $36 million in the US. Critical reception to the film at the time was mixed, but the film's dignity and emphasis of the spiritual side of the story was praised by many. A documentary about the disaster - Alive: Twenty Years Later - was released around the same time, featuring interviews with many of those who survived.

Watchable

Trailer

What's It About?

On October 13th 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 has been chartered to transport members of the Old Christians rugby team from Montevideo to a match in Chile as well as some of their family members. Unfortunately, the plane comes down in heavy cloud over the Andes mountains which causes it to break up and slam into the side of a peak. A number of people are killed on impact or fall from the plane as its coming down, but many survive. Medical students Roberto Canessa and Gustavo Zerbino, together with the captain of the rugby team Antonio Balbi, try to rally the surviving passengers and tend to the wounded, many of whom are gravely ill.

Without much in the way of food or supplies, the survivors soon find themselves in even greater danger. As temperatures tumble during the night, more of them succumb to their injuries, including the sister and mother of Nando Parrado who himself has fallen into a coma. As the days pass, hope slowly fades as rescue planes are unable to spot the downed aircraft amid the snow. As Nando gradually recovers, he finds himself stranded with the others deep in the Andes with the threat of avalanches never far away and the dwindling number of injured survivors faced with the most unimaginable decisions...

What's to Like?

I can't imagine the sort of person who chooses to watch Alive for entertainment because this isn't one of those movies. This is about celebrating the endurance and power of the human spirit, an uplifting fable to remind you that things aren't as bad as you think. And unless you have survived a plane crash and then suffered a long time isolated in freezing temperatures with no food then few of you will be able to comprehend the ordeal these unfortunate souls went through. The film does a decent job of depicting the horrors - cinematography is excellent and the remote mountain location feels cold enough to get that feeling across. Thankfully, the film avoids the more lurid details of the story and treats these events with a degree of respect. But it doesn't shy away from what these people had to endure and what they had to do in order to survive.

Personally, I don't normally find myself enjoying so-called 'uplifting' films like The Shawshank Redemption or this. But the relief you feel when the film ends is palpable, even if it is obvious. It's a grisly watch, certainly not for everyone but it stops short of becoming a grim horror film. Today, as the memories of this incident fade from popular culture, the film is a worrying reminder of what can happen to ordinary people on an ordinary day. If you're not familiar with this story then the film is a shocking watch as you simply can't believe that any of this happened. You might be watching through the gaps in your fingers at times but the film serves as an unexpected memorial to both the living and the deceased.

Hawke (right) leads the ensemble cast through this wintry grimness but unlike the rest of the cast, his recognisability breaks the illusion.

Hawke (right) leads the ensemble cast through this wintry grimness but unlike the rest of the cast, his recognisability breaks the illusion.

Fun Facts

  • Frank Marshall auditioned an inexperienced Brad Pitt for the part of Roberto Canessa. However, he fluffed the reading up and the part went to Josh Hamilton instead.
  • The story had actually already been depicted on screen, way back in 1976 with a Mexican film called Survive! The film was not well received by critics (receiving a rare zero stars rating from Roger Ebert) and the effects were criticised for being crude and disrespectful. This is part of the reason why the film took so long to come to the screen.
  • In 2005, a wallet that belonged to one of the passengers was found by an American hiker after being buried in the snow after all that time. Found a few metres from the crash site, it contained a roll of film, cash and identity papers belonging to Eduardo Strauch - who survived the crash and was interviewed about the experience on TV.
  • The names of all the passengers that died were changed for the film with just three exceptions - Nando Parrado's mother and sister (Eugenia & Susana Parrado respectively) and Lilliana Methol, Javier Methol's wife.
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What's Not to Like?

As technically competent as Alive is, there are some notable problems with the film. For starters, all of the cast look far too well-fed and well groomed to portray stranded crash survivors. Speaking of the cast, they are all white and American trying to portray Uruguayan characters and it just doesn't work and this issue is exacerbated by the presence of the only recognisable actor in the cast, Ethan Hawke. Although hardly A-list, his recognisable features burst the bubble of illusion so at no point does the film achieve the documentary vibe it's striving for. And while the other actors feel authentic, their performances feel overshadowed by the story itself and their surroundings.

I also wasn't a fan of the spiritual aspects of the tale, doubtless a side effect of having one of the survivors serve as a technical advisor on the film. If anything, the film underplays how their faith helped see them through their ordeal which I'm certain it would have, given the strength of Catholicism in South America. But the film struggles to overcome my biggest issue with feel-good cinema - the unending sense of doom and despair. It's hard to imagine a series of events more calamitous than this and the film's apocalyptic atmosphere means that you never sit easily in your seat but perhaps you're not meant to. This is a story that is meant to make you uncomfortable, to feel grateful for what you have and thankful that you will hopefully never live to experience such trauma.

The fact that the film depicts real life events hangs over everything like a long shadow. It's a haunting tribute to both the living and the dead.

The fact that the film depicts real life events hangs over everything like a long shadow. It's a haunting tribute to both the living and the dead.

Should I Watch It?

It's a hard film to recommend, purely because of its subject matter but Alive is an important film as it keeps the memories alive of those who suffered. It's technically solid but unspectacular although some impressive landscape shots make it a bit more palatable to watch. If you're a nervous flyer then it's probably best to keep away from this but for everyone else, the film serves as a potent reminder of the unlimited potential of the human will to survive as well as the strength of an audience's tolerance for ceaseless misery.

Great For: reducing air traffic numbers, memorialising the incident and victims, testing stomachs

Not So Great For: nervous passengers, the squeamish, South American representation in cinema

What Else Should I Watch?

Weirdly, many of the movie adaptations of real-life disasters find themselves stuck in made-for-TV purgatory although the occasional theatrical release does make it through. From classic Seventies disaster flick The Hindenburg to more modern efforts like The Impossible and Sully, there is a morbid fascination with seeing people trapped in deadly circumstances and their attempts to survive. There are still clunkers out there - Kursk springs instantly to mind - but by and large, audiences looking for dramatized recreations of these deadly incidents would have better luck searching on TV.

Airplanes often feature in films, usually either encountering trouble outside the cockpit or trouble inside with some bad guys trying to do bad guy things. The Seventies saw a burst of films starting with Airport in 1970, an ensemble drama that proved so successful that it was not only followed by three sequels but also a parody version in the form of the highly recommended Airplane! The Nineties saw a revival with plenty of action films based around aircraft - Con Air, Air Force One, Passenger 57 and the almost farcical Turbulence all feature a series of explosions and fist fights on board a plane as a square-jawed hero smacks evil in the face. Lastly, this isn't even the only film from the Nineties that saw Ethan Hawke stuck in the mountains - 1991's White Fang is an adaptation of Jack London's 1906 novel of the same name and sees Hawke play a young gold prospector teaming up with the film's narrator, an orphaned wolfdog.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Ethan Hawke

Nando Parrado

Vincent Spano

Antonio Balbi

Josh Hamilton

Roberto Canessa

Bruce Ramsay

Carlitos Paez

John Newton

Antonio 'Tintin' Vizintin

David Kriegel

Gustavo Zerbino

Technical Info

*based on the book "Alive: The Story Of The Andes Survivors" by Piers Paul Read

DirectorFrank Marshall

Screenplay

John Patrick Shanley*

Running Time

120 minutes

Release Date (UK)

30th April, 1993

Rating

15

Genre

Biography, Drama, Thriller

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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