Touchstone Pictures // 1993 // 126 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // November 6th, 2002
They were ordinary young men, driven to the very limits of human endurance.
There's nothing better on a Friday night than a glass of wine, your main squeeze by your side, and a movie about stranded plane wreck survivors living off the dead flesh of their family and friends. Based on an actual incident that occurred in the early '70s, Alive is a story about taking man to the edge of sanity, and then poking him in the eye with a stick just to hear him scream. Directed by Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia) and starring Ethan Hawke (Training Day), Vincent Spano (Indian Summer), Josh Hamilton (The Bourne Identity), and Illeana Douglas (Cape Fear), Alive makes its DVD debut care of Touchstone Home Entertainment.
In 1973, a group of South American rugby players and some family members were heading to neighboring Chile for a rival game. En route, their plane crashed into the Andes mountains, cracked in half, and hurtled into the snow-covered ground in the middle of nowhere. The group stayed there for some ten weeks, surviving on little but caps full of wine, some chocolate bars, and -- ultimately -- the flesh of those who had died in the wreck. As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, the group soon learned that the only way out of their dire situation was to cross the mountains and either find the batteries to the cockpit radio (located in the tail of the plane), or eventually make it to civilization by crossing over the treacherous and lengthy terrain. Alive is their story of bravery, courage, and hope in the face of insurmountable tragedy.
I saw Alive when it was first released on VHS about ten years ago and the only two things I remember were the harrowing plane crash sequence and the fact that the film was so gosh darn long. Clocking in at over two hours, Alive is a movie that often moves along at a snail's pace, trying the viewer's patience and creating a sometimes monotonous viewing experience.
This isn't to say that Alive is not a good movie -- on the contrary, I really enjoyed it the second time around. The story taps into what might be a universal fear: surviving a plane crash while many of your friends and family perish, and then being stuck in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold. On top of that, then you have to eat the dead. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't think that would be a horrid fate worse than death, and yet dozens of the South American players made it out alive, surviving at high altitudes in the bitter cold and existing off their deceased acquaintances.
Director Frank Marshall took on a daunting task while making this film. The largest problem he ran into, I suspect, was attempting to capture the feeling of isolation and dread the players must have felt. None of us can really know what it was like to be stranded in the cold, eating human flesh to survive. No matter how hard the actors and crew try, you just aren't going to completely capture that mood. Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton, as the two "leads" of the film, do a fine job with their roles, though credibility is somewhat shot since by week ten they still look about as healthy as week one, save for some cracked lips and thicker facial hair. Hawke does the best job here with his character Nando Parrado, the strongest willed player who would eventually rescue the rest of the surviving team. Because there are so many people involved in this story it is hard to grasp the true characterization of each boy. Vincent Spano and Jack Noseworthy (Breakdown) are both standouts, though the rest of the cast often gets lost in the shuffle. There are a lot of people to keep track of, and some just get shifted around until many become almost interchangeable.
The film is based on the novel by Piers Paul Read, and while I haven't read the book, I suspect there was a lot left out by the film's end. The story often jumps from days to week with title cards reading "Day 3," then "Day 35," then "Day 50." While this can sometimes make for a sporadic viewing experience, there really wasn't any other way to make the film -- I don't know about you, but I had no interest in sitting through a 56-hour cinematic marathon that encompassed every aspect of the true tale. However, I did have a hard time sitting through the unsettlingly realistic plane crash sequence -- watching the tail of the plane break off and witnessing innocent folks being sucked out of the back while strapped to their chairs would send chills up anyone's spine.
I wouldn't consider Alive to be a "fun" or "exciting" movie. However, even with its disparaging events the movie's core still lays firmly in a bed of hope and survival. I can only imagine how unbearable the circumstances were for these boys -- watching this movie was taste enough for me.
Alive is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks very good, but not great. For some reason this image just didn't jump off the screen as sharply as I expected. The colors and black levels are generally all represented well, though the picture sometimes retains softness and some grain that is mildly distracting. Otherwise, this is a passable transfer with only minor defects.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in Spanish. Much like the video portions of the disc, this 5.1 remix is good, but nothing spectacular. The most intense moments of this mix come when the airplane hits the mountains and crashes -- combining the visuals and the audio mix, this is a harrowing and altogether terrifying scene, and possibly/hopefully the closest thing we'll ever get to seeing what a real plane crash is like. Otherwise, the directional effects are kept mostly to background noises and ambiance, save for a nice avalanche scene. All aspects of the mix are free and clear of any hiss or distortion. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
This "30th Anniversary Edition" of Alive has been upgraded to a mild special edition due to the inclusion of a few well-produced supplements on the real-life tragedy that inspired the film. Aside of the rather short introductions by director Marshall, there are also two meaty documentaries included on this disc: "Alive: 20 Years Later" and "Return To The Andes." "Alive: 20 Years later" focuses on the actual survivors and what their real-life stories are. The second featurette, "Return To The Andes," takes those same survivors back to the Andes to where the plane crash happened. Both of these are effective tributes to the tragedy. The first documentary is narrated by Martin Sheen and also includes some behind-the-scenes footage from the film's production, as well as the survivors meeting the cast and crew of the film. One of the eeriest things about the feature is that the survivors actually went to the fictional film set that really shook them up -- apparently, the filmmakers did such a good job at making the crash site realistic that it nearly fooled the survivors. For those interested in learning more about the real-life story of these brave men, both of these documentaries are worth checking out.
Oddly enough, Buena Vista made the decision not to include the film's theatrical trailer, which I was actually pumped to see. Oh well.
Alive may not be a "fun" movie to watch, but it is worth seeing. Amidst the horror and despair are glimmers of hope, and director Marshall has done a fine, if sometimes flawed job at bringing this story to the screen. Buena Vista's work on this disc is good but it won't win any awards.
Alive may be a tad long, but it is a riveting story of man vs. nature. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Introductions by Director Frank Marshall
* "Alive: 20 Years Later" Featurette
* "Return To The Andes" Featurette