Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cold and Barren: "Alaska" (1996)

Charlton Heston's son directs his father in a sweeping epic of beautiful scenery and impressive action sequences, all squelched by one of the lamest scripts ever shot.

Jake (Dirk Benedict) is a delivery pilot in the Alaskan frontier. He is also widowed, trying to raise bratty and bitter son Sean (Vincent Kartheiser) and cute and vapid Jessie (Thora Birch). They just moved from Chicago, and Sean hates the beautiful countryside so much he wishes his father dead. Jake accidentally fulfills that prophecy, flying into a storm and crashing his small plane on a cliff's edge.

Partner Charlie (Ben Cardinal) flies rescue missions, but cannot find Jake, who flew off course. Stubborn Sean and wilderness-smart Jessie decide to take off and find him for themselves. Also in the woods are poachers Perry (Charlton Heston) and Koontz (Duncan Fraser). They kill a mother polar bear and kidnap its cub, hoping to sell it in Hong Kong. Our intrepid heroes stumble on Perry's camp, steal his cigarette lighter (the little rapscallions forgot matches), and release the bear cub.

Soon, the film settles into a lethargic routine. Sean and Jessie hike on, the bear cub follows them, and Perry and Koontz follow the bear cub, all while Charlie buzzes around overhead in a chopper looking for the kids.

Eventually, the kids name the bear cub "Cubby." Jake continues to wait for rescue as his plane breaks most laws of physics by sliding down into an even more precarious position on the mountaintop. Sean and Jessie are rescued at one point by Ben (Gordon Tootoosis), a Native Alaskan who tells them to trust where the bear cub leads them since they are on a spirit journey to find their father. He never refers to the downed craft as the "lamed iron bird," but this kind of Native hooey is too much even for this reviewer.

Will Dad be found? Will the climax involve lots of dangling and yelling? Will Perry and Koontz get their comeuppance? Does Cubby play a vital role in the rescue of the humans? Have you ever seen any other movie before?

From the opening shots, Fraser Heston has some simply grand looking scenic shots. The Alaskan, and British Columbian, mountains are gorgeous. Even in exterior dialogue shots, my eye would wander to the mountains and forest in the background.

However, pretty pictures do not a good film make. You will want to club Sean like a baby seal ten seconds after he opens his mopey sullen mouth. I wish Jake had flown him over the North Pole and kicked his whiny ass out. I hated him. Poor Thora Birch plays Jessie. Jessie is not a character. Jessie is the sister who knows more about kayaking than Sean. That is her entire reason for being in this film. Charlton Heston's Perry stands around holding a hunting rifle and waxing poetic about man's internal struggle to control nature, but this is no character, either. He is merely a villain. All the characters can be summed up in one shallow sentence each, even the damn bear cub.

Wonderful scenery and an awful script. That is "Alaska" in a nutshell. Instead of underestimating the brain power of the children they were writing for, the film makers should have given them, and us, some credit. (*) out of five stars.