Plot summary: On 28 November 1979, an Air New Zealand jet with 257 passengers went missing during a sightseeing tour over Antarctica. Within hours, 11 ordinary police officers were called to duty to face the formidable Mount Erebus – where the plane was believed to have crash landed. As the police recovered the victims, an investigation team tried to uncover the mystery of how a jet could fly into a mountain in broad daylight.
This film is a little different to your typical disaster documentary. Where normally the drama is associated with the event itself or the rescue of survivors, this unnerving documentary explores the police officers’ mission to recover the dead bodies of the passengers on this disastrous flight and the subsequent controversy and alleged cover up by Air New Zealand.
It shows the physical and mental anguish experienced by the officers, sent in with little experience in this kind of operation to one of the harshest environments in the world. The film itself utilizes an effective style of interviews with the police officers involved and re-enactments of the recovery mission. In these interviews you can still see the lasting emotional impact the event has had on their lives and the trauma it caused them at the time.
The re-enactments are expertly created and do a fantastic job of putting you in the beautiful yet deadly environment as well as highlighting the conditions they faced. Great care was taken with the production as well and all the props are replicas of the equipment and clothing used at the time of the operation.
In 1979, at the time of the crash, Erebus was the world’s worst airline disaster and shoved Air New Zealand and NZ itself into the global spotlight. There were many questions asked, mistakes were made and blame was incorrectly placed.
Documents recovered from the crash site went missing and other vital information was destroyed by the airline which resulted in government investigations, which inevitably caused controversy. Air NZ (recently voted the best airline in the world) was accused of covering up the cause of the crash and the documentary also explores this, including details of the investigations. For anyone interested in this aviation disaster you get a informative overview of how and why the subsequent investigation failed to answer all the questions correctly.
Familiar faces to most kiwis are on screen and the acting is satisfying and not overblown as it sometimes can be when dealing with this kind of emotional subject matter. It reminded me a little of another great mountain-based documentary ‘Touching the Void’ and has a low-key but very effective score which adds to the film’s overall tone of despair but also triumph for the officers involved in a successful operation.
The film also does a great job of showing the kiwi can-do attitude and the officers involved are genuine New Zealand Heroes that, until recently, received no recognition for helping in this terrible part of New Zealand’s history.
With the recent events in the airline industry and three major air crash recovery operations ongoing around the world, this could be disturbing viewing for some, but it also shows the arduous and disturbing task people involved in these recovery operations face.
One of the officers, who was 22 at the time, perfectly describes what the harrowing ordeal had on him. He mentions how each victim’s family grieved them alone but he grieved every single person on that plane. It helps to put into perspective the tough and emotionally draining role rescue teams have to face. The documentary is a fitting tribute to everyone involved in the operation.
EREBUS: INTO THE UNKNOWN is in cinemas 9 January and DVD/On Demand 12 January
Directors Peter Burger and Charlotte Purdy