In his 1993 review of “Alive,” a film based on the infamous 1972 true story of the survivors of a Uruguay rugby team that crashed in the Andes on their plane ride to a tournament, Roger Ebert wrote, “We care about the characters while we watch the movie. But at the end it all seems elusive. The movie characters complete their dreadful ordeal, but somehow, walking out, we feel the real Andes survivors would not quite recognize themselves.” Ebert suggested that “Alive”‘s problem was one of evocation: despite the attempt to impart what the survivors went through, their incredible physical endurance (72 days in freezing cold temperatures) and mental fortitude (being forced to eat the flesh of their dead comrades to continue living) couldn’t even be approached, let alone translated to the screen.
“Alive” was fiction rooted in fact; “Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains” is a documentary, and perhaps its ability to report the same dramatic account of tragedy and heroism from the mouths of the men who lived to tell the tale might convey a stronger feeling for the desperate, deadly situation. Unfortunately, “Stranded,” directed by Gonzalo Arijon, gets us no closer to the heart of the matter–not for lack of trying, but for lack of a clear, effective strategy. The film is an awkward amalgam of talking head interviews, recreations, and original footage of the survivors’ reunion with their families at the site of the tragedy, and while certain moments are memorable in their poignancy and mysteriousness, “Stranded” mostly achieves a flat, dull, and too-conventional depiction of its fascinating subject. “Stranded” proves that even the most epic, otherworldly survival story can be made boring.”
Granted, there isn’t a lot for Arijon to do. Whereas the recent “Man on Wire” contained astonishing original film and photographic footage of its subject’s monumental feat, “Stranded” must compose a two hour movie around a handful of stills while reconstructing the rest from that most unfortunate documentary tactic, the re-enactment. Arijon chooses to shoot the depicted events in out of focus, shaky handheld camera movements meant to mimic amateur home movie footage (there are even fake overexposed frames), and the result is that we don’t really see anything. He refuses to visually represent the cannibalism — an understandable decision and one made good by the eloquent, respectful manner in which the survivors explain it: as a sacrificial communion between themselves and their dead friends and relatives comparable to the Eucharist.
In fact, many of the survivors’ testimonials are quite beautiful in their intensity and attention to detail (one speaks of how he’ll never forget the pilot’s pre-crash joke, “Get ready to dance a bit”), but the static subjects in front of the camera just aren’t balanced out by anything of visual interest. Given what Arijon had to work with, one might wonder what someone with the same fascination with miraculous environmental combat but a greater cinematic sensibility, like Werner Herzog’s, could do with such a story.