The film opens with a collection of photographs of the Stella Maris College's Old Christians Rugby Team. Carlitos Páez points out several members of the team and reflects on the accident in a brief monologue.
The story moves to October 13, 1972 as Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 flies over the Andes. The raucous rugby players and a few of their relatives and friends are eagerly looking forward to the upcoming match in Chile.
However, after emerging from clouds, the plane encounters turbulence and collides with an uncharted mountain peak. During the collision, the wings and tail are separated from the fuselage of the plane, and the remnants of the fuselage slide down a mountain slope before coming to a stop. In the process, six passengers and one flight attendant are ejected from the plane and die. Antonio, the team captain, takes charge of the situation, coordinating efforts to help the injured. Roberto Canessa and Gustavo Zerbino, both medical students, are the first to address the injured. Shortly afterwards, another six die including both pilots, Alex, Nando's mother Eugenia, and an older couple. Nando, who sustained a head injury, falls into a coma, and Susana suffers harsh internal injuries.
As the sun sets, the survivors begin to make preparations for the night. Canessa discovers that the seat covers can be unzipped and used as blankets. The survivors go inside the fuselage and curl up beside one another to stay warm. Antonio, Roy Harley, and Rafael Cano plug the gaping hole at the end of the fuselage with luggage to keep out the wind. Two passengers die during the night from their injuries. With nothing to hunt or gather on the mountain, Antonio declares they will use rationing when the survivors find a tin of chocolates and a case of wine. After seeing a plane dip its wing, the survivors celebrate. Expecting to be rescued the next day, everyone except Javier, his wife Liliana, and Antonio eat the remaining chocolates. This causes a quarrel among Antonio and several others for eating the chocolate.
Meanwhile, Nando regains consciousness. After learning of his mother's death, Nando watches over Susana vigilantly. Knowing she will die of her injuries within a few days, he vows to set off on foot and find a way out of the mountains. When Carlitos reminds him that he will need food, Nando suggests consuming flesh from the corpses of the deceased pilots to survive his journey to find help. Susana dies from her injuries. The survivors listen to a radio for word of their rescue but are devastated to hear the search called off after day nine.
After great debate, the starving passengers decide to eat the flesh of their dead companions in order to survive. Zerbino, Rafael, and Juan Martino set off to search for the tail of the plane in hopes of finding the batteries for the plane's radio to transmit their location. Among pieces of the wreckage, the teammates find additional corpses, but return to the group with news that the tail of the plane is likely a little farther away. Later in the week, an avalanche hits the plane and floods the interior with snow. Most manage to climb out of the snow, but some are unable to escape; eight of the remaining survivors are smothered by the snow or freeze to death. A second team, made up of Nando, Canessa, and Antonio "Tintin" Vizintin, finds the tail of the plane. Unable to bring the batteries to the fuselage, they return to the fuselage to get Roy, who is rumoured to have experience setting up electrical equipment. They bring him to the tail of the plane (where the batteries are located) to see if he can fix the radio. When Roy is unsuccessful, the team returns to the fuselage once more.
Federico and Alberto die from their injuries soon afterward, as does Rafael, leading Nando to convince a reluctant Canessa to search for a way out of the mountains, taking Tintin with them. Two days into the journey, they send Tintin back to the fuselage so they can appropriate his rations and continue on their own. After a 12-day trek, the two escape the mountains and alert the authorities of their companions' location. As helicopters land on the mountain, the other 14 survivors celebrate.
The film then shifts to the present as Carlitos explains the survivors later returned to the site of the crash and buried the corpses under a pile of stones, marked with a cross. The memorial is then displayed with the film's dedication to the 29 deceased and 16 survivors.
James Newton Howard's end credit music was reused in a number of film trailers, most commonly during the mid-1990s.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 70% of 23 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 6.3/10.
David Ansen of Newsweek said that, while, "Piers Paul Read's acclaimed book ... paid special attention to the social structure that evolved among the group ... Marshall ... downplays the fascinating sociological details—and the ambiguities of character—in favor of action, heroism and a vague religiosity that's sprinkled over the story like powdered sugar."
Others, such as Ray Green, praised the tactful nature of the film stating that, "despite the potential for lurid sensationalism, Marshall manages to keep his and the film's dignity by steering an effectively downbeat course through some grim goings on thanks in no small manner to the almost allegorical ring of Shanley's stylized dialogue." Green continues by describing the film as, "thrilling and engrossing as it is at times, Alive is more than an action film—in its own way it is also a drama of ideas, and of the human spirit as well."
Roger Ebert wrote "There are some stories you simply can't tell. The story of the Andes survivors may be one of them." He also questioned the realism of how normal the actors' bodies looked after portraying two months of near starvation.
A companion documentary, Alive: 20 Years Later, was released at the same time as the film. It includes interviews with the survivors, as well as documentary footage of the rescue. The 30th Anniversary Edition of Alive: The Miracle of the Andes (on DVD) includes this documentary in the Extras section.I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane CrashMiracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek HomeStranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the MountainsSurvive! (film)