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Alaska: Spirit of the Wild

The movie of the year -- so far

By Vladimir Zelevinsky


Museum of Science

Directed by George Casey.

Narrated by Charlton Heston.

Isn’t it amusing how the newspaper ads tend to proclaim a given movie to be “the best romance of the year” sometime in February? I always looked upon these overly indulgent quotes with a mixture of disgust and envy; after all, I didn’t notice Warner Brothers using my highly quotable review of Soldier in any ads. In any case, I would like to offer a couple of critical blurbs to the makers of Alaska, an OmniMax movie currently playing at the Museum of Science. These blurbs are free and, more importantly, they are completely sincere.

* Blurb #1: Alaska is the best movie of the year. Yes, I know that it’s only March, and, furthermore, this movie was made in 1997, so technically it’s not really a 1999 movie at all. Doesn’t matter; Everest also came out last February, and remained my favorite of the year all along. Alaska is a worthy counterpart to that movie, both similar in its startling big-screen depiction of snowbound landscapes and vastly different in its approach and tone.

Everest was unusual in the way it used the OmniMax format to tell the relatively straightforward -- and, thus, unusual for this particular medium -- adventure story, filled with feats of heroics and exciting characters. Alaska, at least on the surface, belongs more squarely to the traditional OmniMold; it has no human characters to speak of, and no linear plot to follow. Instead, it fills the giant screen with visuals, most incredible and astonishing visuals, some of which feels utterly out of this world -- which, combined with the knowledge of their authenticity, makes for their main appeal.

A panoramic view of the ice field, with the ice so tightly compressed that it refracts the sunlight in a narrow waveband formed a bright piercing blue. There are shots of icebergs forming, huge slabs of ice as big as ten story buildings, and crashing into the turbulent sea. There’s a shot of a migrating bird flock so dense that there seems to be hardly any air between them. And more -- the team behind Alaska certainly knows how to use the big screen.

It also knows how to make movies. Alaska is not harmed in any way by the apparent lack of plot and characters; and, of course, upon careful consideration, one realizes that both of these are present. The storyline is simply that of the annual circle -- from sunless winter through spring, summer, and fall, back to winter. The film is carefully edited so the passage of time is both clear and non-intrusive, with each sequence concentrating on either people, inanimate nature, or animals -- who, ultimately, take center stage as fully realized characters.

And what characters. Just by carefully observing animals, the filmmakers hit on a huge lode of fascinating behavior, from the touching motherly love of polar bear toward her cubs, to the pitiful-looking mangy fox trying to imitate the bears’ foraging method, to the insanely heroic salmon flock’s trip upstream for spawning. This also results in the thing which was absolutely the last pleasure I expected in an OmniMax movie, wherein we have --

* Blurb #2: Alaska is far and above the funniest movie of the year -- yes, yes, so far. Usually, watching a movie at the Museum of Science one would expect the usual things, like breathtaking images, which include de rigeur at least two shots made from helicopters flying over steep mountain ranges and at least one dizzying point-of-view shot. One wouldn’t expect any major hilarity.

I must admit that I spent most of Alaska trying -- and failing -- to heed the pre-show warning to be quiet, since the movie kept surprising me with priceless comic scenes, like that of a fearsome black bear giddily cavorting in the river, or the underwater antics of sea lions. I guess this is just another payoff of the boundless patience the filmmakers clearly have invested in this picture; when observing a lot of animal behavior, one is bound to see some funny bits. I’m very happy these bits were included -- they make Alaska much more than what one would expect from a simple nature documentary. It’s also the most fun I had at the movies for quite a while.

A small warning: I would think twice before taking any small kids to see this one, since there’s a couple of rather intense hunting scenes.