A young rugby team take desperate measures to survive after being involved in an air crash that leaves them stranded in the Andes for ten weeks.
Pity the poor marketing types condemned to work with Frank Marshall. For his feature debut, the longtime Spielberg producer opted for a tale about very large, very hairy spiders and called it Arachnophobia, potentially alienating the millions who suffer from that condition. And in this film he tackles the tale of the survivors of an air crash who resort to eating the corpses of their deceased fellow passengers - cannibalism, of course, being one of the last terrible taboos and not a staple of a jolly trip to the movies.
In fact, Arachnophobia went on to make huge amounts of money, and, as those who have read Piers Paul Read's stunning account of this story will testify, this is not about cannibalism at all; rather it is about one of the most extraordinary feats of human courage and dogged survival ever recorded.
In 1972, a young Uruguayan rugby team (most in their late teens) were heading for a tour of Chile when their hopeless ex-Uruguayan Air Force plane came down in the Andes. Many of the passengers survived with horrific injuries, staying alive for ten weeks on top of a freezing glacier by eating the dead - an action that was, incredibly, condemned by a number of their Godfearing countrymen on their return.
Marshall succeeds excellently in capturing a sense of the things that dominated the survivors' lives during those months of horror - fear, hunger, despair, cold - and proves adept at characterisation, as leaders emerge, the weak go to the wall, and the members of the audience try valiantly to be honest about how they would cope in such a testing situation. The most gripping moment, naturally enough, is when the starving survivors, knives at the ready, head for the frozen bodies - and once again Marshall doesn't flinch, depicting the incident with gruesome realism.
Where he may have gone awry, however, is in his decision to concentrate exclusively on the crash site (in the book, Read frequently cuts back to the families and the rescue attempts), so that there are far too many shots of people sitting about outside the wrecked fuselage or huddling for warmth within it. Indeed, the entire movie is a good half-hour too long, with one too many failed attempts to get over into the Chilean valleys coming before the last, heroic trek to safety. This does, however, include some extraordinary action sequences, with the initial air crash ranking as one of the most realistic and terrifying ever filmed. And one cannot but marvel at what surviving such an incident - and the following months and years - must do to a human being.
Not exactly light entertainment and it can drag in places but when the drama is cranked up, it really works.