This is one of the best films of 2015.
"Survive!" is a fairly awful movie, but the essential heroism of its subject matter somehow emerges intact. That makes it a difficult movie to review - you can't just dismiss it with cheap shots, you have to deal with the fact that it does have an emotional impact. It's not a good movie or even a very professional one, but it does respect its subject matter and so we have to also.
As everyone must know by now, thanks to the movie's high-powered advertising campaign, "Survive!" is about the Andes survivors - the 16 who lived after a plane with 45 people on board crashed in the Andes three years ago. They survived, as the ads take great pains to remind us, by resorting to cannibalism. They ate the bodies of their dead friends.
This is sensational subject matter, and could easily have been made into a ghoulish movie with abundantly nauseating dialog. Instead, the movie handles the cannibalism in such straightforward manner that we're forced to confront it as fact. We do see flesh, stripped from bones and dried and eaten, and we participate in the debate that leads up to the cannibalism.
The debate, like all the film's dialog, is very stiffly composed English - the dubbing seems to have been mailed in. But as the survivors talk in their painfully formal English ("There is no other choice. We must choose to live.") the actuality of their predicament comes through. The dialog isn't sophisticated, supple or complex - but then neither is their reasoning.
And yet "Survive!" is, after all, a rip-off of sorts. It's a Mexican movie, simply made and not very artistic, and it's been put through a Hollywood post-production routine that makes it look better and more expensive than its original makers could ever have imagined. A musical score has been added, heavy on the bass and on echoes of religious music. Filters and other special optical effects have concealed the phoniness of the show by throwing in a lot of glare. Yet, the movie still suffers from what I call Ice Station Zebra Syndrome, named after the last movie in which no one in subzero conditions ever had frost on his breath.
The movie's doing great business (and maybe that's almost inevitable, given the fact that it's in so many theaters). I found it interesting, though, that audiences seem willing to accept it on its own terms. In most movies featuring a lot of blood and cuts and close-ups of festering wounds and all that, the typical audience laughs to break the tension (horror movies almost always play as comedies). With "Survive!" though, the audience tends to be a little more sober, a little more thoughtful. Maybe that's because we realize that underlying this rather dumb, uninspired, even crude film is a true story of such compelling power that we're forced to think and respond.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
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