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EIGHT BELOW (2006) review

November 30, 2013

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written by: David DiGilio

(inspired by the screenplay for the Japanese film ‘Nankyoku Monogatari’ or ‘Antarctica’ as it was named in the U.S release. ‘Eight Below’ is the fictional re-interpretation of the true events of the 1958 Japanese expedition).

produced by: Patrick Crowley, Doug Davison, & David Hoberman

directed by: Frank Marshall 

rating: PG (for some peril and brief mild language) 

runtime: 120 min.

U.S. release date: February 16, 2006

DVD/Blu-ray release date: June 20, 2006

 

How can you not like this movie? Okay, I know. Not a very objective way to start a movie review. But, just about any movie that is about the Arctic or Antarctic should be appealing to everybody. Why? Because it’s about a place that few of us have visited. We’re talkin’ South Pole people! A truly incredible place to be, much less survive in, as we all saw in “March of the Penguins.” Everything about this environment is amazing, intriguing, and dangerous.

I’m sure many people see the poster or commercials for a movie like this, see it’s a Disney flick and immediately dismiss it. Part of that is Disney’s fault, because playing in the same multiplex is the studio’s remake of their own “The Shaggy Dog”. How pathetic, but that’s an entire editorial on its own. The other fault lies in the moviegoer that sees this as just some kiddie flick. When I first saw the trailer for this last fall, it really had me. I wanted to see it. It looked dramatic and exciting….and indeed it was.

Dr. Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood) has traveled around the world to the most isolated place on Earth – Antarctica – to investigate a meteorite. To do so, he’s going to need professional Antarctic guide, Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), and his crack team of sled dogs to get him across the ice. But when out-of-his-element McLaren is hurt in an accident, he and the rest of the field team must be evacuated, leaving the dogs to fend for themselves until the weather clears and they can be rescued.

 

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Sure, at first sight it looks like it may be a fun but slightly sappy man-and-his-dogs story, yet “Eight Below” quickly evolves into a well-crafted wilderness adventure recalling of Disney’s heyday in this subgenre, as the dogs roam the naked Antarctic wastes, trying to survive. “Eight Below” moves back and forth between the dogs plight and the lives of the human survivors back in the States, particularly Shepard, wracked with guilt for leaving them behind.

And that’s where the real strength and enjoyment of  the movie lies, with the dogs. Their journey is compelling and heartfelt whether its, hunting for food, playing with the Borealis, and in one particularly exciting sequence, fighting with a hungry sea leopard over food. It covers quite a bit of familiar ground, but it does so very well. It works best by focusing on the dogs, all eight of them (hence the title). There’s dumb but hard-working, red-headed Buck, the twins Dewey & Truman, the maternal Alpha leader Maya, young Max, poker-playing Old Jack, silver-maned Shadow, and rebellious Shorty. They’re all adorable and convey a wide range of emotion. Yes animals, especially dogs, feel and show emotions such as loyalty, anxiety, affection, hunger, and anger.

Shepard never stops thinking about them, but there’s not much he can do. He visits McClaren, whose research financed the dogsled expedition. He hangs out at his mobile home on a scenic Oregon coast and he pursues a reawakening love affair with Katie (Moon Bloodgood), the pilot who ferried them to and from the station. To give him credit, he’s depressed & brokenhearted, by the thought of those dogs chained up in the frigid night – but what can he do? Meanwhile, the movie offers text that counts  how long the dogs have been on their own, which is from January to July. Yeah.

 

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The movie may seem kind of long for what it is, but I think it adds to the feeling of the dogs long endurance. It gets a bit sappy towards the end, as earnest movies often tend to do and as this movie should. It’s emotional and I shed a tear or two but then again I cry every time I watch “E.T.”. Whatever your preconceived notions of “Eight Below”, the movie is worth it though, creating a fine piece of wilderness adventure, a genre I grew up with and has languished in recent years.

Could the dogs (six huskies and two malamutes) really have survived unsheltered for five months, scavenging for themselves through an Antarctic winter? I learned from IMDb that “Eight Below” is inspired by a Japanese film, itself based on real events, but in the 1958 “true story,” seven of nine dogs died. Still, the film doesn’t claim to be a documentary, and the story, believable or not, is strong and involving.

It’s the stuff about the humans that gets a lil thin, but I can deal with it because the dogs really pull the movie. (Pun intended). However, when Shepard appeals to Dr. McClaren, one would think he’d exert himself a little more to save the dogs, since they saved his life. (How he gets into trouble and what the dogs do to save him, I will leave for you to experience. It provides the film’s most compelling moments.)

Director Frank Marshall is mostly well-known for his decades as a producer. He’s worked on many memorable hits such as the “Indiana Jones” & the “Back to the Future” trilogies as well as the recent “Jason Bourne”. When I heard he directed this, it locked me in. He’s earned my trust and did not let me down at all here. Cinematographer Don Burgess did a beautiful job with the overall look. The music by the always great Mark Isham is quite noticeable, mainly because in the scenes with just the dogs, there’s no talking. Just three, out of many, who made this movie seem so much more than another sad, tired Disney remake.

This movie succeeds on another level as well. Those of you, like my wife, who aren’t “dog people,” will find as much pleasure in this movie as those (like myself) who are. When we got out of our seats my wife said to me,“I want one.”

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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