By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
On 28th November 1979, Air New Zealand sightseeing flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica killing all 257 people on board. The fourth deadliest crash in history at the time, the subsequent retrieval mission set the template for the grisly job of air crash recovery. Erebus: Into the Unknown focusses on this operation, offering an occasionally interesting account hampered by a SparkNotes approach and half-hearted forays into conspiracy territory.
Director Charlotte Purdy’s documentary is interested primarily in the recovery process, avoiding any build-up to the accident. Using talking heads and reconstructions, she opens with news that the crash has occurred before tracking the fortnight long mission to identify and recover the bodies.
The participation of key figures on the team including lead investigator Bob Mitchell, ensures an air of authority around recollections. This allows the small, personal details to resonate strongly. One officer remembers that they’d actually been at a crash training course shortly before the disaster, agreeing they’d likely never have any need for it. The lack of experience manifests in several ways. On arrival in Antarctica, they step off the plane fully wrapped up expecting blizzards, only to be met by an American walking over short sleeved in the sun. It’s still a treacherous working environment though, and only one of the team has cold weather training.
Jumping between reconstructions and interviews, further gruesome snippets emerge. Given the blunt force of the crash, one officer remembers it was mainly by the hands that they could tell the gender of bodies. One body even had to be hacked out of a crevasse, having fallen in after the overheated engine burnt a path deep into the ice. The reconstructions, covered in a nicotine yellow tinge, work best when providing a simple visual summation of the interviews. Using these, Purdy demonstrates the terror officers must have felt jumping out a helicopter into a swirl of snow obscuring the ground, and the relief that saw them mark the completion of an exhausting operation by sliding down the ice on empty body bags.
Despite all these insights, the true scale of their ordeal remains remote. Aside from the occasional detail, Erebus is a prompt procedural dashing through events without connecting the horror and achievements of Mitchell’s team. It’s a brief snapshot in time, content to skate the surface without further exploration. The interviews three decades on add rare emotion, but many of the reconstructions are poorly written, echoing back the situation already described. Wherever dialogue seeps in, it all becomes distinctly hammy.
Purdy’s decision to dip into the conspiracy surrounding the cause of the crash is also misjudged. After largely ignoring this element, it suddenly comes to the fore right at the end as she brings out the findings of a Royal Commission that suggested airline officials had altered the course sending the plane too close to the mountain, rather than agreeing with the pilot error line pushed by the main report. Text on the screen casts doubt on the final decision. It’s a fascinating story in its own right and one deserving more than a few minutes thrown in at the end.
Erebus: Into the Unknown is no more than a functionary attempt to delve into the past. Purdy’s film was made for TV and it shows, right down to the sometimes trite musical choices. There are flickers of interest that just about hold attention, but this is a tame attempt to highlight what happened out in the snow.
Erebus: Into the Unknown is on general release from Friday January 9th.