Review: Society of the Snow Recounts the Harrowing Events of a 1972 Plane Crash with Grace, Human Drama

If the story told in the epic, harrowing Society of the Snow seems familiar, that’s because it’s been recounted a few times since 1972, when the actual events in the film took place. Perhaps you’ve seen the English-language telling, Alive (1993), or the 2010 documentary I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash, or read the book La Sociedad de la Nieve, which serves as the gripping source material for this latest retelling. Whichever version you might have been exposed to, the story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, chartered to fly a rugby team to Chile that catastrophically crashed on a glacier in the heart of the Andes mountains, is one you likely can never erase from your brain. Only 29 of the original 45 passengers and crew survived the initial crash, and even fewer lived to tell their story when they were finally rescued many weeks later.

Now, director/co-writer J.A. Bayona (The Impossible; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; The Orphanage) digs into this life and death story in such detail that I’m not sure I could handle another adaptation of these events involving humans finding themselves stranded in one of the planet’s most extreme environments with very little food or warm clothing. And if you’re wondering, yes, this is the story about how the few survivors were forced to eat the remains of their fellow passengers, including people who were their closest friends and family members. Bayona digs deep into the hearts and minds of the survivors’ conversations and moral conflicts about resorting to cannibalism as the only means of staying alive. We even get inner monologues from some of the characters (including a few who didn’t live) as a way of explaining the process that went into not just these very personal decisions, but also the care that was taken by those put in charge of preparing the meat in a way that nothing and no one was identifiable (Bayona handles these moments carefully, with as much dignity and restraint as is possible).

With a running time of just under 2-1/2 hours, Society of the Snow (which is Spain’s Oscar contender for Best International Feature) is as tough and rewarding an emotional journey as you’ll likely see for months to come, due in large part to an ensemble cast whose names are almost too numerous to recount here, but whose sunken faces will haunt me in my dreams. As the survivors did, the filmmaker finds fleeting moments of levity—they had to laugh at times to maintain their sanity—but often those moments are cut short by nature, such as a raging avalanche that lessened their numbers substantially (and brutally).

In those moments when two or three survivors attempt to leave the mountain campsite and explore the mountains around them for signs of civilization or even other portions of the plane that might have much needed supplies, we’re grateful for a change of scenery and terrified that those people will never make it back. The desperation is palpable, and the will to carry on fades quickly sometimes. But what becomes apparent by the end of the film is that those who survived did so because of the support they got from those around them—the living and the dead.

It’s impossible to watch Society of the Snow with any judgment in your heart, but if you manage to find some, I feel sorry for you. Even with the level of detail that Bayona gives us in this story, it’s impossible to know what these people went through, especially in their minds. But this filmed version does the best of any of those I’ve seen to capture the physical and mental trauma this small number of people went through to make it out on the other side. Technically a 2023 film, it still ranks as one of the best films of that year or this one.

Society of the Snow is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.