- Reviewed by: Avril Carruthers
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Current Rating 8.23/10 | 13 Votes
Produced by David Hoberman and Patrick Crowley
Cast: Paul Walker, Jason Biggs, Bruce Greenwood, Moon Bloodgood, Gerard Plunkett.
In a wild, wind seared and ice crusted wilderness, an isolated scientific research base in
To make an animal movie, as opposed to a wild life documentary, which evokes genuine feeling but does not overdo sentimentality, as does the recent mawkish Lassie (2005), is difficult. The tendency to anthropomorphise or make cute is as strong as the necessity to avoid scenes of purely instinctual animal savagery. Scenes without any human actors need to be believably natural as well as self-explanatory to avoid the need for narration. Director Frank Marshall, whose Alive, Arachnophobia and
Equally compelling is the interaction, full of lively affection, between the dogs and their sled driver Jerry Shepard (a contained Paul Walker). We are introduced to Jerry’s ‘kids’ and their names and personalities are as individually apparent as children’s. The contrast between Jerry’s obvious love and respect for his team and the oblivious single-focus of scientist Dr Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood) introduces dramatic tension immediately. On an ill-advised, because very late in the season, trip to find a piece of a meteorite from Mercury, McLaren’s obsession endangers himself, the dogs and Jerry, yet he takes for granted the intelligence and courage of the dogs who save his life more than once. An emergency flight in the teeth of an unseasonably ferocious snow storm necessitates the scientific team leave the base and the eight dogs, chained and without food or water, behind. The sudden emptiness of the base without the humans is all the more devastating when the plane meant to return for the dogs within three hours is grounded in the emergency and it becomes apparent that they will be stranded for at least six months of Antarctic winter.
Turning speculation into a convincing dramatic story, how they cope on their own, their desperation and resourcefulness and the dangers they face, which some do not survive, is shown in a series of episodes punctuated with captions harrowingly numbering the days they have been on their own. These alternate with scenes of Jerry, now Stateside, equally desperately trying to find a way to rescue his dogs. A couple of subplots involve the adventurous Kate (Moon Bloodgood), pilot of the plane and romantic interest for the recalcitrant Jerry, and Doc McLaren’s growing realisation of what he owes both Jerry and the abandoned dogs. Jason Biggs plays Cooper, Jerry’s best friend and colleague at the research station, functioning well as light comic relief with phobias including those of flying and being given a facial wash via dog tongue.
Eight Below is full of the stark and stunning beauty of Antarctica, even though it was filmed in Smithers and
Naturally the most endearing and heart-wrenching scenes involve the dogs on their own. This is particularly in interactions between the beautiful and smart husky Maya, the team leader, and Max, the youngest of the dogs whose character arc takes him through hard necessity from underdog to leader. Through Jerry’s attachment to his ‘best girl’ as well as through her clever strategies in finding food in the desolate waste of the Antarctic winter, Maya is the focal point of some of the most triumphant and the most poignant scenes. But it’s perhaps the dogs’ collective behaviour which impacts the deepest. There is a clear hierarchy of leadership – some of which is extraordinary if it reflects how dogs reverting to a pack mentality in the wild would really act – and an obvious deep attachment to each other, quite apart from a need to work together to survive.
If you saw the recent remarkable Antarctic documentary March of the Penguins, which featured a predatory leopard seal, you will recognise this beast in one heart-stopping segment. As Jerry comments, “It’s more leopard than seal!” Underwater-and-ice footage, shot in an ‘ice-pool set’ featuring this convincingly fierce animatronic creation, is nail-bitingly tense.
The canine actors in the film deserve more than a mention, as do Head Animal Trainer Mike Alexander and his team. It’s satisfyingly appropriate that of the dog cast, many were rescued themselves from the street and now find themselves in demand as canine film stars.
Eight Below is a superb film and fitting tribute to the amazing courage and tenacity of the dogs of the original expedition, some of whom survived alone even longer than their fictional counterparts. Even if you are not a dog-lover, I challenge you to be unaffected.
© Avril Carruthers 20th April 2006
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