Wednesday, February 22, 2006

REVIEW: Eight Below

A sudden medical emergency forces an evacuation of all personel from an Antarctic research base. Space limitations require that the team of eight brave, clever and adorable sled dogs be left behind... for the time being. But when "the biggest storm on record" hits the area hard, "for the time being" becomes "for good." The dog team must survive on their own, braving the harsh environment, while their devoted human master tries to find a way, any way, to get back to them.

It'd be easy to make a bad movie from such a premise, and Disney especially is notorious for making maudlin, moronic films from such a premise on numerous occasions. But you can believe the hype on this one: "Eight Below" isn't just good, it's damn good.

Here's how it works: Once the plot is in motion, the film turns almost totally observational in it's approach to the paralell human and animal stories. The lead hero (Paul Walker, who MIGHT just be morphing into some kind of decent actor) isn't "man on a mission" to get the animals back, he's determined but also realistic, and his story tracks his slow withdrawal from life over guilt at leaving his team behind.

Likewise, the dogs (six Siberian Huskies and two Malamutes) aren't "questing" for anything other than basic food and shelter, and their "adventure" is presented both from a dog's-eye-view of the action and also from (as much as possible) a dog's "perspective." There's no speaking animals, no "Babe" CGI-tweaking or even monologue. The dogs "act like dogs," in as much as they really do appear to be thinking whatever we're projecting onto them. As a man of science, naturally, I'm aware that there's little chance that dogs are actually "sad" or "happy" when they make what we see as a "sad" or "happy" face, but animal-"acting" like this makes it awfully easy to forget that.

The dogs get the bulk of the screen time, in fact. There's several terrific rescue scenes, of humans by dogs and dogs by dogs, amazing sequences of "tactical" hunting; and a scene of pure comic-tragic poetry where the dogs find themselves enraptured by the Northern Lights. But the "money" moment is an extended, genuinely thrilling action scene featuring a battle for control of a killer whale carcass against a fearsome Leopard Seal, which the dog's-eye-view filmming and note-perfect staging effectively transform into a more-than-suitable doppleganger for a rampaging T-Rex... or more appropriately one of the "Aliens."

This is a good adventure movie and a great dog movie. Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 9/10