Director : Frank Marshall
Screenplay : Dave DiGilio (suggested by the film Nankyoku Monogatari)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Paul Walker (Jerry Shepard), Bruce Greenwood (Dr. Davis McClaren), Moon Bloodgood (Katie), Jason Biggs (Charlie Cooper), Gerard Plunkett (Dr. Andy Harrison), August Schellenberg (Mindo), Wendy Crewson (Eve McClaren)
Perhaps you have to be a dog owner to be reduced to the blubbering mess that I found myself in by the end of Disney's Eight Below, but there you have it. Even with my sharpened critical faculties turned on high alert to detect every ounce of contrived tear duct manipulation, I was utterly incapable of not being torn to shreds and then lifted up again by the movie's portrayal of a team of sled dogs left behind at an Antarctic research station when the humans have to make a hasty exit before the winter storms arrive.
This got me thinking on my way home about why dog movies have such power over people (by sheer coincidence, I also caught Old Yeller on television the night before, surely the pinnacle of the tragic loyal dog genre). After all, many movie goers have long since been inured to the sight of human death and suffering on screen, yet you do the same thing to a pack of well-meaning huskies, and it immediately moves to a level of tragedy that works directly on the heart. Perhaps it is because, in their idealized cinematic conception, dogs represent the very best traits that we humans like to think we possess: honor, loyalty, bravery, and pure, unconditional love. Perhaps those traits seem so much more powerful in our canine companions because they appear to spring naturally from dogs' very essence, while people struggle mightily against their flawed natures to do the right thing. It's virtue without the human messiness.
The story in Eight Below derives from an actual occurrence that took place in 1958 in which Japanese researchers had to leave behind a team of sled dogs and found several of them still alive a year later (the two surviving dogs went on to become national heroes). The story has already been told in the 1983 Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari, but it is clearly too good not to tell again, especially in a reworked, finessed, and Americanized version.
Eight Below begins with Paul Walker as Jerry Shepard, a guide at an Antarctic research station who leads a scientist (Bruce Greenwood) on a mission to find meteor fragments. Walker's genial, handsome blandness is almost appropriate because he is not the center of story. As much as Dave DiGilio's screenplay tries to centralize him, primarily by giving him a forced romantic rekindling with an ex-girlfriend (Katie), Jerry is ultimately important only insofar as he functions as an audience surrogate to emote pain, frustration, sadness, and guilt about leaving the dogs behind.
Perhaps because of the blandness of the film's human dimension, Eight Below works because it keeps its primarily focus on the dogs and treats these canine heroes with the right amount of respect for their fundamental nature. These are not anthropomorphized cartoon heroes or impossibly clever Lassies, but rather working dogs who do what they can to survive in the harshest of conditions for what turns out to be months on end (a painful title card comes up every time we see the dogs on-screen informing us of the number of days they've been on their own). We see them survive by organizing to catch birds and fighting off an unexpected attack by a particularly vicious leopard seal, but the adventure is always weighted by a sense of quiet melancholy because they have been deserted.
The constant threat of death hangs in the air, which keeps the film from becoming either cutsey or vapidly sentimental. Director Frank Marshall, who oddly enough filmed Alive (1993), a similar story involving plane-wrecked humans who ultimately resorted to cannibalism, has a good sense of what touches our hearts without becoming mawkish. He understands the value of shots of the dogs licking each other's wounds or refusing to leave the side of one of the departed, but he uses such moments sparingly and with a sturdy emphasis on reality; never once do we doubt that what happens could really happen.
The dogs are clearly strong and capable and have more survival potential than the fittest human being with thousands of dollars of North Face equipment, yet the emotion the film most clearly and consistently evokes is that of loneliness, which is driven home by Don Burgess' marvelous cinematography that captures both the stark beauty and the unforgiving bleakness of the Antarctic wilderness. Even with its groan-inducing double-meaning title, Eight Below is a surprisingly mature film in its balance of uplifting fantasy and sometimes brutal reality. Of course, for full emotional impact, it helps if you're a dog owner.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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