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Human characters fail to eclipse canine standards

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

“Eight Below” is an inspirational story with a very strong message – animals are far better actors than humans.

The movie is based on a true story from 1957. A fierce blizzard forced two Japanese scientists to evacuate their station, and the helicopter that took them to their ship didn’t have room for their 15 sled dogs. The scientists were so certain a rescue team would be back soon that they chained the dogs to posts. But the storm made the rescue impossible. When the scientists finally got a ride back 11 months later, they were shocked and thrilled to find two of the dogs had freed themselves and survived.

“Antarctica,” Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1983 movie about the event, was a big hit in Japan, but American producers found it too dark. Frank Marshall, better known for his other survival movie, “Alive,” about the Uruguayan rugby team, was chosen to direct this new version. Under his guidance, the dog crew shrank from 15 to eight, and the survival rate rose.

The expedition is also updated to take place in 1993, conducted by American scientists. Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) works in Antarctica as a guide for a research and exploration facility. He has a team of amazing sled dogs, each with their own personality. When geologist Dr. McLaren (Bruce Greenwood, “Thirteen Days”) hires Gerry to take him to a remote mountain region, they get caught in a killer snowstorm, and McLaren gets badly hurt. Thanks to the heroic dogs, McLaren survives, and both men make it back to the base camp.

The eight dogs are then left behind when the exploration team has to suddenly make an emergency evacuation. Gerry agrees to leave them because he thinks it’s only going to be hours before they can return for the dogs, but a second trip turns out to be impossible – and so begins the saga of the dogs’ survival.

The movie switches back and forth between Gerry’s efforts to return for his dogs and the story of the brave dog team’s fight to survive alone in the wilderness. The film is at its best when it goes to the dogs. Not only are they adorable with incredibly expressive faces, but fortunately they also don’t talk – the pitfall of many movies with animals. They comfort each other, they take care of each other and they stand out against the beautiful backdrop of Antarctica (which was actually filmed in Canada and Greenland). Their struggles on the ice, complete with a ferocious attack by a leopard seal, are reminiscent of the highly successful “March of the Penguins.”

The people, not the animals, are where this movie falls to pieces. None of the characters ever experience any real development – they only serve to take the action away from the dogs and make the movie run longer than it should. While Walker isn’t bad as the scientist Shepard, he also isn’t very convincing in his role.

There is also an undeveloped and pointless love interest between him and the pilot, played by Moon Bloodgood. Jason Biggs is Walker’s friend on the research team and is meant to provide comic relief, but serves instead as a good indicator of when it is safe to go to the bathroom or refill a tub of popcorn.

With a little tweaking “Eight Below” could have been a great movie – namely if they edited out the people and let the movie be strictly about the dogs. But overall, “Eight Below” is a good movie worth watching for the endearing performances of the eight dogs.