In a two-week span, two movies about Alaska will make their big-screen, big-budget debuts. "The Grey," starring Liam Neeson, comes out nationwide Friday and tells the story of oil workers who become stranded when their plane crashes in the Alaska wilderness. "Big Miracle," which had its unofficial debut on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., tells the story of a 1988 rescue of grey whales trapped in the sea ice near Barrow.
These movies are vastly different both in theme and subject matter -- "The Grey" is an action flick of the kind that the well-regarded actor Neeson seems increasingly drawn to nowadays, which prompted NPR to ask, "What will Liam Neeson punch next?" The movie is directed by Joe Carnahan, whose last name is appropriately reminiscent of "carnage" and who also directed Neeson in the equally frenetic "A-Team" movie last year.
"Big Miracle," on the other hand, looks to be a feel-good cross between a romantic comedy and environmental activism film, and stars the perky personalities of Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, among others. It's directed by Ken Kwapis, whose other directorial offerings are similar lighthearted fare, like “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Dunston Checks In.”
But perhaps the biggest difference is that of these two movies, both purported to take place in Alaska, only one ("Big Miracle") was filmed here. Filmmakers of "The Grey" -- despite a lucrative set of Alaska tax credits that the Legislature must vote to extend or abandon this session -- opted for the Alaska-lite filming locale of British Columbia, Canada.
Now, most people won't know the difference, which is what Hollywood always counts on when it comes to film settings. But there's debate to be had over whether Alaska should want every movie -- "The Grey" depicts its team of oilmen not only crashing in the wilderness, but subsequently being stalked by a pack of what appear to be the most murderous wolves in history. It even prompts Neeson to tape single-shot alcohol bottles to his hands, giving him claws and making it a fair fight when he decides to have a showdown with a wolf.
"The Grey" might not be a bad movie. In fact, it even had a favorable score of 78 percent on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes in the day before its release. It might even end up being a better-regarded film than "Big Miracle," which was shot in Alaska.
But the image it gives Alaska can't be one that anyone in the state is too thrilled about. Thus "The Grey" will likely join the pantheon of films promoting a wide array of misconceptions about the Last Frontier and the lives that its people.
Here are five other films that misconstrue Alaska in a way that might never be forgiven.
1. 'The Edge' (1997)
So "The Edge," a suspense thriller starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, never explicitly states that it's taking place in Alaska. It's clear from the float planes, soaring mountaintops, rushing rivers and remote locales that the filmmakers are attempting to evoke the "Great Land." There are references to early sunsets and Kodiak bears. The Native American imagery is a little muddled, depicting not Alaska Natives but another, more traditional stereotype of a continental American Indian.
But the film, which was written by the usually reliable (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) David Mamet, was filmed almost entirely in Alberta, Canada. Not only that, but its affronts to Alaska are numerous, full of flawed logic and implausible circumstances.
The story revolves around a billionaire (Hopkins) and a fashion photographer (Baldwin), who are forced to survive in the wilderness after their plane strikes apparently the largest flock of geese in recorded history -- if the number of feathers flying into the cockpit are any indication. Hopkins suspects Baldwin is having an affair with his wife, and so the men must fight the beast inside themselves, in addition to another, less metaphorical beast: a 1,500 pound Kodiak grizzly.
In the early part of the movie, a grizzled innkeeper warns the naïve New Yorkers about bears.
"They'll kill ya as soon as look at ya," he says. "Nothin' he'd rather eat than human flesh -- he's a man-killing machine." Sounds about right. He then warns people not to leave food uncovered, even indoors. It doesn't stop Anthony Hopkins from stumbling upon a whole ham sitting uncovered by an open window later that night in the kitchen -- a ham he then leaves out.
Film critic Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, mocked the first credit after the movie's dramatic conclusion, which in bold letters proclaims "Bart the Bear," the grizzly featured in the film. Despite Ebert's scoffing at the credit, it feels appropriate. The bear is the most Alaskan thing about the whole movie.
Well, that and the sweet grizzly-fur vest that Anthony Hopkins makes later in the film.
2. 'The Simpsons Movie' (2007)
Several Hollywood films play upon the stereotype that Alaska is where people come when they want to escape from something. So when "The Simpsons," the family featured in television's longest-running sitcom, have to flee Springfield in the film adaptation, it's only fitting that they head to Alaska. The Alaska portions of the movie drew some of the biggest laughs from Alaskan audiences, but it's hard to tell if we were laughing with, or merely laughing at, the film's depiction of the state.
Before they even arrive in Alaska, the Simpson family -- Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, in case anyone didn't already know -- drive through a barren white plain of oil derricks and pipelines. Then, upon their arrival the Alaska border, they meet a cheery customs agent.
"Welcome to Alaska!" He chirps at them before handing them a wad of cash. "Here's a thousand dollars!"
"Well, it's about time," Homer says as he snatches the money. "But why?"
"We pay everyone in Alaska $1,000 to allow the oil companies to ravage our state's natural beauty," the agent replies.
It's a moment that doesn't help the Outside interpretation of Alaska's Permanent Fund Dividend, put even more under the national microscope in 2008 when then-Gov. Sarah Palin tacked on her $1,200 "Alaska Resource Rebate" to the already record-high dividend that year.
Of course, the Simpsons then take up residence in a log cabin where Marge needlepoints a "Nome Sweet Nome" wall hanging. Homer is almost eaten by a polar bear before being rescued by an Alaska Native. All in a day's work for Alaskans, right?
3. 'North to Alaska' (1960)
OK, so this one isn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's considered a minor classic and one of John Wayne's better comedy roles. Johnny Horton's theme song, also titled "North to Alaska," has become a bit of an unofficial sourdough anthem.
But the film's main crime is one of location, location, location. "North to Alaska" was made one year after Alaska's induction in the Union, and Hollywood wanted to capture the frontier spirit. What better way than a gold rush movie starring the Duke? And so, Hollywood went about filming Alaska in the same way they filmed every location back in those days -- by filming in sunny California.
I mean, if they could recreate Vermont, Florida and WWII-era Europe on a single soundstage for "White Christmas" a few years' prior, who's going to know the difference between the Pacific Ocean and Norton Sound?
Despite some scenes that might be passable for hills and river valleys surrounding Nome during the height of the Alaska Gold Rush, much of the film is inexcusable in its attempt to pass off California's beaches as the shores of Nome. The northern lights are depicted with none of their grandeur, instead relegated to what looks to be a lite-brite display stuck into a matte painting.
The story follows a prospector (Wayne) as he travels to Seattle to pick up his mining partner's French fiancé while punching everyone in sight. In between bouts of misogyny, alcoholism, and general debauchery among the people of Nome, he finds time to fall in love with a French prostitute and engage in all-out brawls in the muddy streets of "Nome."
Don’t let it get you down, though -- it's a good movie, as long as you swallow the Hollywood pill with a big grain of salt while watching it.
4. 'The Proposal' (2009)
Where "North to Alaska" and its off-the-mark shooting location can be forgiven due to the era in which it was made and because it stands on its own as a good film, the same cannot be said for "The Proposal," which attempts to use the waters off of Massachusetts to depict Sitka, Alaska.
This film is often cited as one that should have been made here, due to the existence of the lucrative Alaska film credits at the time. But I say let them keep it. "The Proposal" holds a 43 percent "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with good reason.
The story follows a type-A personality publishing executive (Sandra Bullock) and her sweet, puts-up-with-all-her-crap assistant (Ryan Reynolds) as they attempt to convince immigration services that they're engaged to be married, which would allow Bullock -- a Candian national -- to avoid deportation. He's about to go home to Alaska, and so she's forced to tag along. Blah, blah, blah, everybody has a few laughs and learns something about themselves, Bullock and Reynolds fall in love, the end.
The cloying storyline doesn't mean they don't have time for a scene where an eagle attempts to snag a small dog in its talons and another scene in which Betty White tries to teach Bullock a traditional Alaska Native dance and chant that devolves into Bullock breathlessly singing "Get Low" by Li'l John and the East Side Boyz.
Feeling cultured yet?
"The Proposal" is a good example of using Alaska as nothing more than plot fodder -- a way to drive the story by introducing unusual situations -- rather than as just a setting. Maybe the producers chose not to film here because it might have meant actually learning something about Alaska.
5. 'On Deadly Ground' (1994)
This is it -- the granddaddy of bad Alaska movies. The difference here is that this one was actually filmed in Alaska, and it makes a point of letting the viewer know. Majestic views of Alaska mountains and images of an apparently pristine Prince William Sound set the stage for "On Deadly Ground," which was both directed by and starring a man who never met a bad movie he didn't want to make, Steven Seagal.
Seagal rolls up in his snakeskin boots, tasseled animal-hide coat, and the most majestic ponytail known to man. His first line in the movie, as he makes a dramatic entrance from a helicopter to the scene of an oilrig fire?
"Hey you, what's cookin'?"
Michael Caine also stars as CEO of an oil company who's rushing work and using bad equipment to meet a construction deadline, killing workers and ignoring environmental regulations. What's the best way to deal with a corrupt oil company? Not legislation or litigation -- Steven Seagal knows it takes good old-fashioned ass-kicking, which he does all the way from a Valdez bar full of oilmen to the final, poetically-just death of Caine's character.
The movie was released five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a famous symbol of negligence leading to a massive environmental disaster. The movie, in some way, is supposed to be a warning against another Exxon Valdez. At the end of the movie, Seagal delivers a speech at the Alaska State Capitol building warning against the evils of oil and the need to develop electric engines and spliced with images of environmental disaster.
It's an admirable message, but one completely lost in the awfulness of the movie. The movie drew heavily on local extras while filming in locations like Valdez and Nome, but when it came time to cast Seagal's Alaska Native love interest, they inexplicably went with a Chinese actress.
"On Deadly Ground" -- which didn't recover its cost at the box office, made Siskel and Ebert's "10 worst movies" list for 1994, and earned Steven Seagal a "Razzie" for Worst Director -- perhaps makes less a case for environmental awareness and more a case for why Alaska shouldn't want every movie filmed here that is set here.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com