Wednesday, October 03, 2007

THE LAST WINTER: why *wouldn't* the environment fight us off like an infection?

site | trailer

Went solo to THE LAST WINTER tonight at Kendall. A sort of meditative man-vs-supernature-eco-horror flick set in the
arctic. Something, it turns out, I rather like. Called to mind quieter bits of THE THING and, oddly enough, some FINAL FANTASY: SPIRITS WITHIN. Before I forget character names and familiar cast, let me get down who/what I remember...

Ed Pollack, oil company man and arctic advance team lead
...Ron Perlman.

Jim Hoffman, eco-scientist and activist assigned to the advance team
...James LeGros.

Abbey, oil company woman and second-in-command
...Connie someone, so frickin familiar.

Motor, the camp's Mr. Fixit
...familiar guy, got a Mark Ruffalo thing goin on.

Elliot, Hoffman's assistant
...also played the guy who loses his head in Stephen King's KINGDOM HOSPITAL, in the same glasses, too, looks like.

In 1986 some joint government and local-interest operation set up a test drill site in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (is that the correct name?), ran it for a limited time, dismantled and capped it, and then classified the results. At some point in the near future (the story's present), the results are released and Northland Industries, a petroleum company with a supposedly conscientious plan and appropriate oversight for getting to the oil with minimum impact on the environment, wins rights to drill in the region. Advance teams are sent to prospective drill sites to establish initial camps and conduct research to ensure that the conditions of the sites are favorable to building the roads needed to move in the equipment and population needed to begin drilling.

At one of these camps, close to the original test well site, things are getting a little... weird. Northland high muckymuck Ed Pollack flies in to check in on his team—Abbey, a sometime lover and second in command, Lee, an apparent native Alaskan and crewman, Dawn, another native/eskimo/inuit blood, the camp's cook and medical expert, Motor, mechanic and engineer, Maxwell, newbie crewman and son of a Northland exec and adopted nephew of Ed, Hoffman, the team's eco-conscience and researcher, and his assistant, Elliot. Ed's on a timetable, and needs approval from Hoffman and Elliot to begin moving trucks into camps. Unfortunately for Ed and Northland, studies of the local climes reveal they are way out-of-wack, and Hoffman won't approve the construction of ice roads for another season/year. The temperatures are all over the place, and overall, way too warm for what's expected of an arctic winter.

Meanwhile, Maxwell seems to be falling prey to "big eye," a kind of madness that sets into those individuals who can't handle the isolation, cold, or general f'd up conditions of living in the arctic. He finds himself wandering over to the test site more and more. He tries to explain to Hoffman that he's seen something in the wind and snow, creatures, or ghosts, and says that the test site is haunted. He poses the theory that the ghosts of the dead that created the oil are preparing to attack them, for intruding on their home.

Maxwell's behavior continues to get more and more erratic and wild, until one night, he wanders off on his own, naked, into the arctic night. The rest of the crew find him the next day near the capped well, dead in the snow from exposure, his eyes plucked out by black birds, ravens or crows. He'd taken a video camera with him, and on playback the tape reveals that he wanted to capture video evidence of the ghosts. The team watches and listens, but can't make out anything Maxwell describes until the very end, when he has the camera trained on himself, pleading with them to see and hear the creatures, when from behind him a streak of a vicious, skullish shape seems to strike him down, flinging the camera into the snow.

Ed immediately takes the digital tape out of the camera and chucks it in the fire, claiming that he needs to protect the kid's parents from this vision of their son, cracked, wacked out, wild-eyed and suicidal in the arctic, all as a result of a recommendation and mission that he himself is responsible for.

Well, would you believe things only go downhill from there?

Throughout the film, different characters voice theories of the cause of the madness and mishaps that plague the camp and team in a rising crescendo, and they're all great riffs on the classic sci-fi/horror theme of man vs. (super)nature. Lee and Dawn provide snippets of spiritual explanations from Native American lore. Maxwell speaks for madness, while Hoffman and Elliot try to bring their science to bear, but more and more really on "feeling" over measurement, while Ed and Abbey fight to the last to push the company line and meet the growing chaos with denial.

Good times.

The story's got a lot of great ideas. Visually and fright-wise, the movie is mostly about what you don't see, which can be a little disappointing, but I appreciate what a great job it does of building and sustaining the atmosphere of isolation in an alien wild, with the hint of menace both within and without the camp and its team. And as ever, I give the film and its cast bonus points for building characters that I quickly get to know and like.

There's a great bit when we hear Maxwell ponder aloud: I wonder if it's like this all over.

I've seen a few films from one of the production companies involved, Glass Eye Pix, mostly at the Brattle's Boston Fantastic Film Festival screenings (AUTOMATONS and THE ROOST, I think — be sure to check out this year's offerings!), and they've all been really well-crafted films of atmosphere and mood built on riffs of simple and classic horror-ific film ideas. Some great indie filmmaking. I hope to see more from them.

Keep on keepin on~

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