Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Eight Below (2006)

You'll cheer for the dogs instead

Forget about weapons of mass destruction. I know for a fact that the most irresistible weapon humankind has ever invented is the dog. Simply screen a movie about man’s best friend, or better yet, feature an entire pack of dogs forced to survive on their own in Antarctica for half a year, and witness how humans are trained to obediently go “awwww” “ooooh, very cuuuuuute” and even cry bucketfuls of tears on the director’s command. Given that this is a Disney animal movie, all these happened in the cinema where I was reviewing Eight Below.

The dogs in Eight Below are so impossibly cute that your children will beg you to buy one or eight – just like how they bugged you to buy a Dalmatian after watching 101 Dalmations. Whatever they say, don’t buy the dog. The Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute are breeds native to the Arctic. In Singapore’s weather, these dogs are prone to heatstroke – and it isn’t a pretty sight. Last year, a malamute died with blood foaming at its mouth due to the neglect of its owner. Just to let you know.

Back to our review. Arctic guide for the UN scientific mission at the South Pole, Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), is a strong, silent, outdoorsy guide at who has better chemistry with his pack of 8 sled dogs than with his on-again-off-again girlfriend and colleague Katie (Moon Goodblood). When David McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), a geologist, turns up in Antarctica prospecting for meteorites from Mercury, Shepard and his sled dog team are enlisted to help transport the prof and his equipment over the icy distances. With winter approaching and a huge snow storm over the horizon, the prof displays his uncomical knack for clumsiness and getting into accidents and gets humiliatingly rescued by the dogs.

The confluence of these factors mean the entire team has to evacuate their base and leave the dogs behind. As the worst storm of the century hits Antarctica (Don’t you think it’s strange how every storm in the movies is the worst storm of the century?), winter replacement teams are cancelled and Walker realises that he has just chained the beloved dogs to their post for at least 6 months.

From this point on, the movie belongs to the dogs, the Antarctic icescape, and their struggle to survive. It’s like a National Geographic documentary, except you know that all or almost all of the dogs will break their chain and survive anyway, despite how much Jerry mopes morosely, moans about his guilt at abandoning his dogs, and desperately plans to return and rescue them, in the sequences that alternate with the ongoing canine tale.

Due to the weak acting from Walker and dialogue from the writers, the audience will want to scream at the director to get back to the story in the Antarctic. Will the dogs break free? What will they eat during the coming winter? Will they freeze to death in the snow? Are these animals enough of a team to see each other through the perils of shifting ice, howling ice storms (I swear they have a far worse effect on visibility than the haze that hits Singapore between the monsoon seasons!), and a horrific giant seal that probably escaped from Jurassic Park? Besides, the Antarctic landscape and its aurora australis displays are so much more picturesque and captivating sights.

Even though you could probably predict the ending, it’s the unnerving uncertainty in the middle that keeps audiences rooting for the sorry dogs. Clever titles serve as a gentle reminder of the passing months, as well as the increasingly mangy and emaciated look of the sled dogs. The acting from the canines are so superb that even if you can’t match each one with its name, you’ll still feel the pull on your heartstrings with every closeup of their faces, and join half the cinema in weeping when they get rescued after their long ordeal.

First published in incinemas on 13 April 2006

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