In 1972, a Uruguayan flight carrying 45 people crashed into the Andes Mountains, leaving some of them stranded in the freezing, punishing snow of the terrain. In 2023, Spanish film director J.A. Bayona has adapted this book of this remarkable story into a breathtaking motion picture courtesy of Netflix –The Society of the Snow. While watching a film is obviously not anything like the experience of living through this harrowing ordeal, Bayona’s ability to graphically present the most grueling scenarios makes it as real as could be, and the movie one of the best survival/disaster pictures in recent years.
The Society of the Snow – or La Sociedad de la Nieve – is a Spanish production, already shortlisted for the Oscar for Best International Feature. Its director is no novice to disaster survival films, with his 2012 picture The Impossible depicting the tragic events of the Indonesian 2004 tsunami in stunning, spectacular fashion. It essentially opens when a flight from Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile carrying members of a rugby team among others, accidentally crashes into the mountains in Western Argentina.
From that moment on and through the 2-hour 20-minute runtime, Bayona and his fellow screenwriter Bernat Vilaplana keep you gripped to your seats. The inherently incredible nature of the story helps, sure, but much credit goes to Bayona and Cinematographer Pedro Luque’s relentless approach. The two are committed to showing you every aspect of the disaster and the horrific events that followed, from up close when needed, or detached as well, if necessary. The cast is made up almost entirely of newcomers, which adds a welcome layer of credibility to the proceedings. You will quickly be rooting for them, but your inability to recognize them from the last show you watched makes it that much harder to predict their fate.
But there is a lot more to The Society of the Snow than first meets the eye in those stunning opening sequences depicting knocked-off airplane wings and a sliding fuselage. As visually impressive as the film is – its visual effects are the best I saw this year, at least outside of a major studio picture – it turns out that its strength ultimately lies in the complex human story at its core.
Without getting into too many spoiler details, some of the original survivors of the plane crash end up living in the frigid environment for…many days. One can imagine the moral quandaries that this situation entails. In law schools across the country, young lawyers are encouraged to think about the complexity of society rules and their natural underpinnings, if anything, by studying the so-called “Case of the Speluncean Explorers,” a mythical group of adventurers stranded from civilization who resorted to less than conventional means for nutrition, and then, put through the old English court systems when they were rescued.
The people of this film, as it so happens, lived a real-life version of that, and it is in Bayona’s talented hands that this situation is depicted respectfully, thoughtfully, but also with the complexity it requires. Along the way, the various characters develop emotional bonds with their environment and with each other. Here, too, Bayona shines, because his own passion for the project shines through in the work of his dedicated, unknown actors. While a story about difficult survival, about the humanity of it, may not be new to Hollywood, this film is refreshing and unique in its ability to portray such a brutal story with such compassion at the same time it does so with unapologetic honesty.
By the end of the entirety of The Society of The Snow, you will have experienced a wide variety of memorable emotions. From fear, to exhilaration, to tears, certainly, Bayona’s movie sticks with you just like the one that put him on the scene starring Naomi Watts did in 2012. Again, none of it is in the same universe as the horrific experiences that the survivors of the Andean flight did, but it is hard to imagine anyone making a movie that could come any closer than this one.
Awards Potential: International Feature, Visual Effects
Box Office Potential: Low (Netflix doesn’t report box office.)
Overall Score: A-
Society of the Snow will be released by Netflix in theaters in the U.S. on December 22, 2023 and on its streaming platform on January 4, 2024
Principal Cast: Matías Recalt, Agustín Pardella, Felipe González Otaño, Luciano Chatton, Valentino Alonso, Francisco Romero, Agustín Berruti, Andy Pruss, Simón Hempe, Juan Carus
Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenwriter: J.A. Bayona, Bernat Vilaplana
Producers: Belen Atienza, Sandra Hermida, J.A. Bayona
DP: Pedro Luque
Production Design: Alain Bainee
Costume Design: Julio Suarez
Editor: Jaume Marti
Score: Michael Giacchino