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The latest movie to be “inspired by true events,” it turns out, was actually inspired by a another movie. Trumpeting that they’re telling “The Most Amazing Story of Survival, Friendship, and Adventure Ever Told,” the makers of Eight Below are betting that you haven’t seen Japan’s Nankyoku Monogatari, which beat them to the real-life punch by a good 23 years. Known, kinda, in the United States as Antarctica, that film was the story of a ’50s South Pole research team that was forced to leave behind their eight highly trained huskies in the face of a nasty storm and an airplane at full capacity. They think they’ll be able to come right back for the dogs. They’re wrong, and they end up making the return trip some six months later. That the dogs demonstrate more acting ability than Paul Walker is, presumably, an innovation in the new version.
Still, Eight Below does end up being pretty amazing: You’ll marvel at the dogs, sure, but you’ll also be astonished that Mr. 2 Fast 2 Furious continues to get lead roles. Here Walker, er, walks through the part of Gerry, an Antarctic “survival guide” who, against his better, blue-eyed judgment, obeys an order to escort scientist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) on a trip twice as far as the one Gerry has already planned for. The stability of the ice is uncertain, McClaren has packed a ton of crap, and even if they take the dogs instead of a heavier, speedier mode of transportation, the journey is One Big Risk.
But the dogs “absolutely love their work,” according to their master, and though screenwriter David DiGilio laces the expedition with the expected gasp-inducing moments, the two humans make it back battered but still breathing. Then that nasty storm starts bearing down, and it becomes harder to understand why Disney is promoting this as another animal adventure for the kiddies—who’ll no doubt wonder why the pups have to be tightly chained and left behind and Jason Biggs gets to fly to safety.
Trying to ride on the popularity of a certain documentary from last year, director Frank Marshall throws in a cute penguin scene right at the beginning. But the running time, at two often slow-moving hours, isn’t very family-friendly. Nor are Eight Below’s graphic depictions of serious hypothermia and vicious predators—indeed, one scare is so unexpected amid the movie’s nearly silent whiteness that it’s sure to make even the grown-ups jump. And if parents want to teach their children that sometimes dogs eat seagulls and dead whales instead of Kibbles ’n Bits for dinner, well, this is the film to take them to.
Marshall makes Gerry and McClaren’s trip quick-moving and riveting, but you may as well tune out when the movie starts cutting back and forth between the humans, safely back in America, and the dogs, left to fend for themselves in increasingly perilous conditions. It’s the actors that make life on this continent a snooze, but DiGilio’s story line helps, too: Walker uses his one expression to obsess over being forced to abandon his best friends, Biggs, who plays a goof cartographer, appears only at the film’s beginning and end and is annoying in both, and Moon Bloodgood, who plays love interest Katie, does little but smile love-interestingly.
At the same time—and as silly as it may sound—the dogs are unbelievable. Like March of the Penguins, Eight Below seems designed to prove that even very adorable animals can have very remarkable instincts. And like Penguins director Luc Jacquet, Marshall isn’t above appealing to filmgoers’ own instinct to anthropomorphize to make his case. The dogs’ leader tries to rouse the tired and comforts the injured, and the newest member of the team, though dopey-looking, ends up being the most calculating. The dogs react convincingly to one another as well as to anything new that shows up in their blank habitat (which is actually Canada and Greenland), and though editor Christopher Rouse (The Bourne Identity) probably deserves nearly as much credit as head dog trainer Sally Jo Sousa (yes, Snow Dogs), it’s all seamless. After a while, you’ll want the people to come back just so the dogs will have something new to interact with.
That happens, of course, and the research team’s return trip is, of course, unnecessarily protracted. But it’s worth it just to see the reaction of the pups, who are solely responsible for making Eight Below live up to its tag-line adjective.
At the same time, Lt. Lorenzo Council (Jackson) is on patrol, chatting easily with the residents of a project in the almost exclusively black Dempsey, N.J. Lorenzo’s goal of trying to find and talk some sense into a kid who missed a hearing for a minor marijuana charge is interrupted when he’s asked to take Brenda’s carjacking case. He’s gentle until she finally stammers that her 4-year-old son was in the car. Then, naturally, he flips out and starts yelling questions at the sobbing mom. He pursues the case furiously, but with Brenda unwilling to give up more details and acting erratically—say, slapping her hands on her forehead or against a wall—Lorenzo quickly concludes that the white girl ain’t right.
Brenda has a brother on the force, too: Danny (Ron Eldard), who also yells at her, asking her if she’s back on crack. (Aha!) He pleads for the return of her son on TV, beats the crap out of an innocent man—and then disappears for the rest of the movie. And because Brenda said the crime took place in Dempsey, where she works, and not Gannon, the predominantly Caucasian neighborhood where she lives, the residents of the project are put on lockdown. Not for the night, but for a few days, which one man points out has never happened before, even after the multiple homicides that occurred in his building. With the Gannon police taking over, the not-quite-believable situation inevitably escalates into a riot.
Somewhere within Freedomland lies a gripping story, snippets of which the filmmakers manage to do justice to. The truth about the clearly fucked-up Brenda and her missing child remains in question until the end, and the treatment of black-on-black versus black-on-white crime is actually thought-provoking. And when the search for Brenda’s kid is aided by a volunteer group devoted to finding missing children (that candlelit parade from the beginning), the movie is at its best: Edie Falco, no longer Soprano-glam, delivers a fantastic performance as the group’s subtly intense, shrewd, and heartbroken leader, who gets crucial information out of Brenda.
Moore, meanwhile, matches Jackson and Eldard in underachieving and overreaching, fading in and out of a Jersey accent and generally making her crazy-loon/white-trash character more laughable than sympathetic. It doesn’t help that Price’s script is also loaded with speechifying and treacle. And unlike his last self-adaptation, the similarly themed Clockers, this story leaves most of its subplots unaddressed. If you must know Freedomland’s mystery, don’t complain that you weren’t forewarned: A key clue is the statement “If you go, you’ll be sorry.”CP