Had Tiger Woods not recently scored a double-bonehead (and were Americans not already trapped in the Ouroborian cycle of producing and consuming the mix of celebrity gossip and partisan pseudo-outrage that passes for news these days) perhaps more attention would be paid to the ongoing World Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Disappointingly, more has been made of the “Climategate” e-mail “scandal” than what’s actually on the table, which includes possible revisions to 1997’s Kyoto Protocol and efforts to help poor, but rapidly growing, nations fight climate change.
But I digress. I am here not to lament our eroding culture but to praise the efficient, spooky enviro-chiller The Last Winter, a movie that deserves its moment in the sun before we blow up the Earth or said celestial body burns out, whichever happens first.
Although moviegoers in general tend to shy away from topical films (witness the recent rash of cinema related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been roundly ignored by audiences), framing social issues within the boundaries of a genre has long been a way of sneaking a message to the masses.
The Last Winter is built on a classic genre foundation: A disparate group of characters played by B-list pros is stranded in a remote location; unexplainable occurrences lead to internal strife; the body count rises as the mystery deepens. The film’s heart, however, is decidedly timely.
“Alaska: Vast wilderness of the North,” intones a female voice over soaring string music and a montage of majestic, arctic images. “Land of great natural beauty and diversity.
“This is rugged country,” the voice continues, “land of black gold.” On screen, an oil drill penetrates the earth.
The camera cuts to Maxwell (Zach Gilford), the young man watching this corporate video for fictional oil conglomerate North Industries, as he prepares to step into the harsh winter elements of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The video refers to the ANWR as a “barren landscape,” but reminds viewers that despite the inhospitable conditions the company is “working in concert with environmental experts” to responsibly extract the petroleum that will provide energy independence. (Oil companies have been attempting to foster the illusion that tapping ANWR will lead to something more than inflated short-term profits for them long before the shrill Sarah Palin stumbled onto the national stage and “Drill, baby, drill” became a rallying cry for right-wing sheep.)
A small crew—including two scientists—is at the North Industries outpost to flag potential drilling sites and assess the most environmentally friendly method for transport. The problem with the former is that the sites are being marked by the increasingly erratic Maxwell; the challenge with the latter is that there isn’t one because the permafrost has thawed.
When foreman Ed Pollack (a blustery Ron Perlman) arrives to find doubt about the project’s viability and safety, he tries to foster the us-versus-them mentality prevalent in drilling areas; he calls the crew “pipe dogs” and infers they’re doing what “Americans want,” leading the noble charge for energy independence. (In western Colorado where I live—and where much of the oil and natural gas fields similarly rest on public lands—self-righteous, propagandist bumper stickers reading “Oil field trash and proud of it” and “Oil and gas feeds my family and yours” are common.)
But there is something more in the air than dissension. Its presence is felt initially as the camera sweeps around the compound (to Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me) amid a blowing snowstorm, lingering briefly as it passes the rooms of individual occupants.
Director and cowriter Larry Fessenden ratchets up the suspense methodically, settling in with the characters as tensions bubble up from below the surface.
The doomed Maxwell becomes obsessed with the site of a long-ago-drilled test well—marked by a white box jutting out of the bleak tundra—and begins to see visions (or are they?) of spectral herds of caribou thundering across the frozen plain. Meanwhile, lead scientist James Hoffman (James LeGros) is embroiled in an affair with Abby (Connie Britton), Pollack’s former flame, who puts the relationship on ice when it becomes clear that Hoffman is not going to sign the environmental impact statements necessary to allow North to proceed with drilling.
It is via Hoffman that Fessenden channels the film’s big questions.
“… nature’s indifferent to us. We fight for our survival, not nature’s,” Hoffman observes in his journal, which is shown in quick cuts as not only a record of rapidly increasing temperatures but a document of pent-up frustration and snowballing rage. “Why do we despise the world that gave us life?
“Why wouldn’t the wilderness fight us?” Hoffman asks. “Like any organism would fight off a virus.”
Although Fessenden is clearly on the side of science, he doesn’t let the scientists off easy. Hoffman’s sanity is called into question when he wants to err on the side of caution and evacuate the crew, but provides mixed explanations as to the cause of what’s happening. His research assistant Elliott (Jamie Harrold), the lone figure to initially stand up to Pollack and the one who stumbles upon Hoffman’s rantings, meets an ambiguous, bloody end.
In a neat twist on the sci-fi/horror movies of yore, however, it is the scientists who provide the collective voice of reason in The Last Winter. They don’t want to stick around and capture or study anything; they want to leave.
The corporate drones, on the other hand, wish to press on, with Pollack going so far as refusing to report a death and destroying the only tangible evidence of what plagues his dwindling team.
Despite its relevant theme, The Last Winter is decidedly old-fashioned. There is none of the slash-and-spurt of modern horror movies, and the special effects are spare but effective. The insinuating soundtrack is likewise skillful, from the clamor of ghostly ungulates (spookier than it reads) to a percussive rainstorm to the mocking squawk of ravens to the static breaks of the walkie-talkies, which provide an increasingly unreliable link between their users.
While even Pollack grudgingly acknowledges “it’s a little late in the game” for global warming to be questioned, it’s not too late to feel The Last Winter’s chill … yet.