"Based on a true story" is an explanation so common among made-for-TV movies that it's become a cliche catch phrase, something of an industry joke. So, it's a bit surprising to see it pop up on the big screen right under the title of the new film "Alive."
This is the story of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes some 20 years ago who committed acts of cannibalism, using the bodies of those who did not survive.
That's the abbreviated, shorthand synopsis, playing up the story's most sensational aspect. But there's obviously a lot more to it — and director Frank Marshall ("Arachnophobia"), using a script by John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck," "Joe Versus the Volcano"), has made a movie that tries to explore the inherent insistence of the human spirit to struggle for life against all odds. The film also puts audience members in the position of the film's characters, which increases the tension.
"Alive" begins with the passengers aboard the plane, members of a college rugby team from Uruguay, along with some of their families and friends. The plane begins to rumble and shake and eventually crashes into the side of a mountain, where the tail detaches and flies off on its own — along with a few passengers.
As plane crashes in the movies go, this is possibly the most realistic and chilling I've ever seen — and I've seen plenty. The trouble is, it's so intense that it's a very tough act to follow and the rest of the film is almost anticlimactic.
Of course, the crash kills several people, but a number survive and begin rationing what little food was in the front of the plane. They camp in the freezing snow, using the shell of the plane for cover. As days pass and it becomes apparent no rescue is imminent, they come up with creative ways to make water, keep warm and get along.
Soon, however, the food is gone and to keep up their strength, someone suggests the unmentionable — and, to some, unforgivable — act of cannibalism.
The film builds to this moment in a way that will likely have the audience wondering if it's going to turn into "Night of the Living Dead — The Survivors!" But Marshall is a classier director than that and he steers clear of making the moment overly exploitative. (Though it is still, admittedly, rather disgusting.)
Marshall manages to create a believable ensemble with his group of actors (the most recognizable being Ethan Hawke and Vincent Spano), all of whom are excellent. He also keeps a steady level of fear and a sense of the freezing cold, which should keep audience members on the edge of their seats throughout the film.
Being a Steven Spielberg protege (he worked on the "Indiana Jones" films and other Spielberg projects for years before striking out on his own with "Arachno-pho-bia"), Marshall also has a penchant for literal cliffhanging situations and he uses a near-fall off the mountain one time too many. The film is also a bit on the long side (more than two hours).
Still, this is a compelling story with universal implications and Marshall does a bang-up job of bringing it to the screen as an action-adventure, as well as a stirring salute to the human spirit.
"Alive" is rated R for the violent crash, some resulting gore and a few scattered profanities.