Alive, the go-eat-’em-on-the-mountain survival saga based on Piers Paul Read’s nonfiction bestseller, hits its peak in the first fifteen minutes. Literally. It’s 1972, and a small plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team over the Andes to Chile runs into bad weather. Director Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia) stages what follows about as skillfully as I ever expect to see it handled. When the plane dips to perilous depths and scrapes the tip of a mountain, it cracks apart like a great glass piñata; screaming passengers are sucked out into the sky, seats and all. The moment is at once horrifying and thrilling — spectacle with a cruelly random touch. Later, we will find some of these people frozen in the snow, still in their seats, like tombstones.
Yet this version of Alive (there was a cheesier film on the same subject, Survive!, in 1977) most often sacrifices realism to uplift. Alive spent twenty years in Hollywood limbo, because studio executives doubted whether the mass audience was ready for people eating the dead to survive. The question is moot, since Marshall doesn’t make us watch much of it. Or anything else potentially upsetting, either. Once the survivors of the crash begin their long waiting game until help arrives, Alive goes flat and never really recovers. Part of the problem is that there’s no way to get to know 29 people in two hours; screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) singles out five or six of them, who nevertheless remain cyphers. Once the men among them start growing beards, there’s the new problem of telling them apart. Each time someone dies, we don’t feel the weight of it because the others don’t seem to. Yesterday he was captain of the rugby team; today he’s an appetizer.
Alive gives you the impression that the survivors got over their initial qualms about cannibalism pretty quickly. According to Read, “Of all the work that had to be done, cutting meat off the bodies of their dead friends was the most difficult and unpleasant …. If the eyes remained open, they would close them, for it was hard to cut into a friend under his glassy gaze, however sure they were that the soul had long since departed.” The movie touches on the survivors’ spiritual fervor (try counting how many “Hail Mary”s they say) but doesn’t get too deeply into the notion that many of them considered cannibalism a sin against God, and had to get past that in order to live. Instead, Marshall points the camera at the mountaintops gleaming in the sun, while characters issue such religious belches as “God is everywhere today.”
I suppose I should point out that gorehounds expecting a barf-bag delight, with entrails pulled from bellies in pink Technicolor, are in for a letdown. Alive is a very tidy movie about eating the dead. Here’s Read again: “Having overcome their revulsion against eating the liver, it was easier to move on to the heart, kidneys, and intestines.” In the movie, we see them nibbling on frozen swatches of buttocks; they might as well be chewing Slim Jims. We also miss out on the preparation of the meat (sometimes they cooked it when the weather was fair enough to allow for a fire). I don’t ask for gross gut-munching á la Dawn of the Dead, but we should have some sense of the spiritual and physical revulsion these people had to overcome. That’s part of what makes their story remarkable. But Marshall and Shanley dance around their story’s unpleasant center.
Alive also suffers from a malady common to survival films: It’s tough to sit through. We’re stuck in the snow right along with the survivors; after about half an hour of disappointments, botched escape attempts, avalanches, and deaths, we’d just as soon not be in their company any more (and Alive feels very long). When the lights go up, you hit the aisle running. Despite the best efforts of stars Ethan Hawke as the heroic Nando Perrado, Vincent Spano as Antonio Balbi, and Illeana Douglas as Liliana Methol, the characters are interchangeable, the conflicts underdramatized. And when the helicopters finally come to the rescue, there isn’t quite the rush of adrenaline we expect and need — just relief that the ordeal, theirs and ours, is over. I admire Alive, in an odd way, for staying true to the mind-numbing boredom and frustration of survival in the wild. But why should we have to go through it?