Sunday, 10 January 2016

Three Great Movies Set In... Alaska

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

This week's theme takes us to the wilderness of Alaska. For cinema it is a perfect location - vast, spectacularly beautiful landscapes with almost no populated areas and the threat of imminent danger looming day and night. A State so large and unpopulated that if Manhattan had the same population per square mile, it would be home to a mere 14 people. It's a place that writers and filmmakers have always been drawn to because it makes a great setting for a story, whether true or imagined. Although I've never been, I've long been fascinated by it, and have watched many movies and read many books set there. This is my pick of three fantastic stories where this harsh, remote environment dominates the lives of the characters, and because of what it does to them, you could say the landscape almost becomes the lead character in itself.

Into the Wild (2007)

"I'm going to paraphrase Thoreau here... rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness... give me truth."

Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) is a high achieving student who becomes disillusioned with civilised life, and heavily influenced by literature from the likes of Henry David Thoreau (Walden) and Jack London, he gives away everything he owns and walks out on his family to live alone in the middle of nowhere. Played by Emile Hirsh, we follow his journey to reach Alaska, the impact on his devastated family, and the extraordinary events that unfold when he gets there. This is a very special film for me, the cinematography is incredible and it's such a profoundly moving story - I'm not in any way a crier, but I will say this got to me in ways that few films ever have. My outlook on life has been similarly influenced by the likes of Walden, although more as a way of thinking rather than the extreme actions that Thoreau or McCandless took. Even if you don't feel the same way about this particular film, I hope you will know what it's like to experience a film that feels like it's been made just for you, and this is that for me. Even having read John Krakauer's book and watched the film numerous times, I will never get my head around the fact that this is a true story.

Limbo (1999)

"What are you buying when you get on a roller coaster? Not risk, but the illusion of risk. Being hurled to the edge of danger but knowing that you'll never have to cross it... The obvious next step is not bigger and better facsimiles of nature, but nature itself. Think of Alaska as one big theme park."

On first look this film by John Sayles (Lone Star) appears to be a fairly ordinary drama about a relationship between a fisherman (David Strathairn), a singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and her troubled daughter. Watchable enough without being remarkable. Then a good while into it, the story heads in a completely unexpected direction, with a plot development and tonal shift that almost turns it into an entirely different film with the same characters. I was initially drawn to this by the title and tagline: "Limbo: a condition of unknowable outcome", which kind of sums it up without helping in any way to explain where this story is going.

The Grey (2011)

"Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I'll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day".

The land mass of Alaska covers around 660,000 square miles, a fifth of the entire size of the US, and almost all of it is uninhabited except for bears, wolves and other beasts that want to eat you. So it's not the ideal place to have a plane crash, which is exactly what happens to Liam Neeson and a group of fellow oil workers. On top of dealing with their wounds, the cold and the inhospitable landscape, they are being hunted down by a pack of ravenous wolves. Whilst I would question Neeson's instincts of challenging any kind of wild animal to a fight, it did make for an entertaining fable, and there are plenty of poetic moments and dialogue that elevate it above the norm. This is by far Neeson's best action/adventure movie, and coincidentally, according to official records it's exactly 660,000 times better than Taken.

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