Picks and Pans Review: Alive

updated 01/25/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Vincent Spano

Profoundly chilling in every sense of the word, this is a thoughtful, involving adventure tale that ranks with such memorable survival films as Swiss Family Robinson. The Red Tent. Green Hell and Flight of the Phoenix.

Directed by Spielberg crony Frank Marshall, Alive is adapted from the 1974 book of the same title by Piers Paul Read, which told what happened when a twin-engine prop plane went down in the snowy Chilean Andes in October 1972. The crash killed 21 people on board and exposed the rest to a 70-day ordeal of terrible cold, fear and starvation that eventually induced those who survived to eat parts of the corpses of those who did not.

Screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (in a creative turn from his hit Moonstruck) and Marshall handle the cannibalism discreetly. They devote much more time to the emotional and moral crises faced by the survivors, most of whom were players or followers of a Uruguayan rugby team on its way to Chile. There is even an explicit comparison of the cannibalism to the Catholic sacrament of communion.

The mostly American cast is headed by Spano, as the team's captain, and Hamilton, as a sensitive medical student who comes to function as the group's conscience. Hawke movingly evokes the tensions and confusions of the survivors trying to endure their predicament.

Marshall stages the crash in terrifyingly vivid detail. He also is judicious in his use of background music. Rather than slather the sound track with bathetic or stirring orchestrations, he keeps things quiet, allowing the audience to hear the cracking and snapping noises of the crashing plane, the dull moans of the injured, and the quiet roar of an impending avalanche.

In that way, among others, the film is reminiscent of The Killing Fields. It sounds real; it looks real; it plays real. It's easy to believe that people actually behaved this way, nobly, ignobly and indifferently. Truth is not always inspiring. (R)

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