What a breathtakingly fantastic film!
I knew very little about this going in (I had not even watched a trailer) — all I knew was that it was a survival tale in Alaska, which didn’t sound that interesting as we’ve seen that sort of thing many times before.
I was a little confused at first, because it starts off awkwardly with flashbacks and such, and I thought that was a severe flaw in the film. But trust me — later on it makes total sense and there are important (and brilliant) reasons why it was done that way. Once the movie gets going and the plane crashes, it’s non-stop drama, terrifically done.
The story is elegantly simple: a group of oil workers on are on a flight to Anchorage when their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness in the middle of winter. Only a handful survive and as they struggle to cope with their situation, wolves show up and begin to pick off the men one by one.
This kind of story borrows a ton from Jack London’s stories — you really feel the desperation of the men and the wolves, and the pure fear and adrenaline rush when you see a black night and a pair of glowing eyes appear and then slowly, more and more and more and you realize there’s an entire pack of ravenous wolves just outside the light of your fire.
This is very realistically done, with a lot of variety in how the men die (it’s not just the same thing over and over). While there were a few places — common in films like this — where I wondered why the men didn’t do X or Y, for the most part the men do act rationally and do the right things to survive. (My primary question was: shouldn’t there have been an air marshall on the flight with a gun they could use?)
The film strikes a perfect balance between introspection and humor. My favorite example of this was where one man tells a tender-hearted story about his daughter and another craps on the story with a crude telling of an encounter with a fat prostitute and the first whines, “Here I was telling this heart-warming story about my daughter and you go and ruin it!” Just brilliant.
Toward the end the film tackles question of God — apropos considering the situation of the men — and I liked the way it was handled with no easy answers.
The performances all around are superb, but I must mention something I rarely discuss: sound design. Whoever did the sound on this film deserves an Oscar, because it is fantastic. Most of the time you really don’t see the wolves — they are just shadows lurking in the trees and you aren’t sure if they are even really there. But you hear them. The variety of sounds is fantastic: crackling of snow and ice, tree branches, growls, grunts, whines, classic howls, snarls, and countless other sounds that will send chills down your spine. Just amazing and a key reason this film will make your palms sweat.
Finally, a spoiler here — don’t read any further if you don’t want an idea of how this film ends. But I cannot discuss this film without comparing it to a film I absolute hated with a passion, The Perfect Storm. That film is a similar tragedy but it was pure depression. There was no point to it. There was no hope, nothing positive, nothing good. This film, while sad, leaves you invigorated. There’s a great line in the film where the main character talks about a life so pure that after living one minute you’re just desperate to live the next minute equally well. That describes the feeling of this film in a nutshell, for I didn’t leave the theatre sad, but wondering how I can live my life to the fullest. That is great filmmaking.