The words “inspired by a true story” are always a little misleading. They mean that what you are seeing is not a true story, but a fictional tale that had some origin in truth somewhere, sometime. Eight Below was inspired by a true story about a Japanese explorer – one that didn’t have a completely happy ending. Walt Disney Pictures has Americanized the tale and made it considerably more uplifting. To the picture’s credit though, it doesn’t completely whitewash reality. This is a tale of survival that doesn’t shy away from showing genuine peril.
Paul Walker plays Jerry Shepard, whose job is to guide scientists through the most treacherous sections of Antarctica. When one such scientist, Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), arrives in search of a meteorite that landed in the area, Jerry is responsible for taking him up one of the mountains to look for it. Because it’s early in the season – when the ice is potentially thinner – the only way to travel is by dogsled. Jerry’s beloved family of canines is not only well trained, but they also live for their work. It’s part of what he loves about them so much.
The search for the meteorite is filled with danger. Adding to it is a massive snowstorm that is prepared to hit. A complete evacuation of the base is ordered. Jerry’s friend (and ex-flame) Katie (Moon Bloodgood) doesn’t have enough room on her plane for the dogs, but she promises to come back for them as soon as the humans are dropped off. Jerry initially protests this plan, then reluctantly agrees. The storm hits faster and harder than expected, thus preventing Katie from going back. The dogs are left there on their own. Jerry beats himself up over the situation, feeling like he should have never hopped on the plane without his friends. He makes a vow to return to the base, if only to see if they survived. At each turn, he is stonewalled by scientists (who say it’s too dangerous to go in during the severe winter months) and politicians who don’t want to help. Jerry even turns to McClaren, who says there is nothing he can do.
These are smart dogs, however, and they manage to survive for months. The survival element of Eight Below is quite amazing to watch. The film does not hesitate to show the food chain in effect. To survive, the dogs work together to trap birds to eat. Later on, they encounter a dead whale and hungrily pick apart the meat from its carcass. We can see how the dogs utilize teamwork for the good of the group. They try to help remove each other’s collars, scrap for food, and care for one another when injury strikes. There is also a tender moment where the dogs show love for one of their own who suffers a serious injury. In the best scene (in a “movie” sense, if not in a realistic one), the dogs work together to fight a leopard seal that threatens them. It’s inspiring to see animals battling tough odds and surviving. That is, after all, part of what made March of the Penguins so affecting. It works here too. The dogs are heroic and I became very invested in watching them fight for their lives.
My opinion of star Paul Walker has always been a little divided. I don’t think he’s a particularly versatile actor, yet what he does, he does well. Walker has a specific talent for playing young men who are tough yet sensitive, adventurous yet resourceful. That quality is put to good use in this movie. We buy him as an arctic tour guide and he also sells us on Jerry’s feelings. Once back in civilization, Jerry continues to be haunted by what happened, even as he tries to carry on with life. Then, when he decides to find a way back, we also believe in his seriousness of purpose. Walker does a fine job drawing us into Jerry’s mission of love for his animals.
When Eight Below focuses on Jerry and the dogs, it works beautifully. It’s only in the peripheral areas where it stumbles. The on-again/off-again romance between Jerry and Katie is boring and predictable. The subplot could have been scrapped with no effect on the film. Jason Biggs is also miscast as Jerry’s pal Cooper. He emphasizes the goofiness of the character, making him seem more like a comic sidekick and less like the cartographer he is supposed to be. Some of the plot developments are easy to see coming as well. Does anyone really think that McClaren won’t eventually help Jerry eventually?
Really, I’m nitpicking by pointing these things out. Eight Below is so filled with action, adventure, and genuine emotion that it’s easy to ignore the few little things that don’t work. This is one of those movies that sweeps you away. You get involved in it, eventually more or less forgetting that you’re sitting in a theater. Director Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia) keeps the adventure moving, while still maintaining a strong focus on the bond between Jerry and the dogs. The mixture of action and heart gives the picture some very moving moments, particularly at the end.
Yes, it’s a tearjerker but in a happy kind of way. Survival stories are often so effective because they remind us that we have interior reserves of strength that we don’t realize are there. What I like most about this movie is that it explores both types of survival: the dogs must physically survive brutal weather conditions, while Jerry must emotionally survive the sorrow and doubt that comes from having to leave his friends behind. It gives nothing away to say that Eight Below is a celebration of the strength that keeps both humans and animals going even in the most challenging of situations.
( out of four)
Eight Below is rated PG for some peril and brief mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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