starring Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood, Moon Bloodgood, Jason Biggs
screenplay by David DeGilio
directed by Frank Marshall
by Walter Chaw There are situations and statements, questions and propositions, that are so stupid by their nature that they actually approach Zen. And then there's Frank Marshall's arctic dogs-and-dude melodrama Eight Below, which plays for all the world like not only the world's most unwelcome sequel (to Snow Dogs), but also a companion piece to March of the Penguins. It is, in simplest terms, a pandering blight--a straight line (nay, flatline) from unsurprising set-up to unsurprising resolution, every bit the equivalent of a line of footprints in the snow between two known points. Opening with one of film history's most wooden leading men, Paul Walker, and "nice Jewish boy" comic relief Jason Biggs sitting in a hundred-degree steam room before running out into a 30-below autumn day in Antarctica, Eight Below immediately teaches us that human beings heated to a toasty 110 degrees do not steam when exposed to sub-zero temperatures and, more, that if you should ever visit the South Pole, your breath will never, ever show. It's full of fun facts like that, but it saves its most fascinating revelations for the intricacies of canine interactions, including their complex gift-giving behaviours, advanced speech, abstract philosophical concepts, and eerie ability to go for at least fifteen days at a time without food or water. It even wrests an explanation from the universal loam as to what Walker was put on this earth for: to be upstaged by eight dogs, someone named Moon Bloodgood, Jason Biggs, and miles of white. It goes without saying that those scenes Walker plays against Bruce Greenwood have the queasy, guilty fascination of a baby seal getting mauled by a polar bear.
Walker's dog-sled master Gerry is enlisted to take hotshot scientist Dr. McClaren (Greenwood) to some mountain in the pristine wasteland in search of some meteorite that just happens to be lying on top of the snow directly in their path. McClaren is the stupidest scientist in the world, needing to be rescued constantly from his mortal errors in judgment, and when a storm rolls in, forcing the evacuation of the little outfit sans pooches, it's McClaren who's given the lion's share of responsibility for the dog-like Gerry's never-in-doubt reunion with his people-like charges. Trumpeting that it's based on a true story, Eight Below is actually based on a Japanese film called Nankyoku Monogatari that was sort of suggested by a true story in which only two of eight abandoned dogs survived a few months in the wild. In Disney's hands, that death count is turned upside-down. I can't help but think that it would've felt cozier if its set-up weren't identical to that of John Carpenter's The Thing, but alas, I can't find much pleasure in a postcard and a dog calendar deadened by periodic episodes involving Walker doing his best to approximate a heartbeat.
But Eight Below knows which side its bread is buttered on and so it shows a dog playing poker, dogs kissing, dogs mourning, dogs telling other dogs to sit while organizing a hunting party, dogs fighting a CGI leopard seal ("More. Leopard. Than. Seal. I. Say," offers Gerry), dogs barking at the Northern Lights, and, most importantly, dogs not killing and eating their human counterparts after months of isolation and starvation. I did like the scene where Gerry's perfunctory love-interest Kate (Bloodgood) says that she's dating an engineer and Gerry asks, "A. Train. Engineer?" in a way that confirms Walker didn't understand the line as a joke, but didn't care for the scene where Gerry consults a wise old Native American for spiritual wisdom. Nor, in truth, did I appreciate Mark Isham's invasive James Horner score, his "Micky Mouse'ing" of every dog scene with whimsical musical emoticons that confirm the idea that the picture believes--correctly, granted--that its audience is comprised of ignorant sheep desperate for herding.
The standard hate mail in response to my reviews of films that suck in this way is that I must not understand what it's like to be a parent in search of movies to watch with their children, and what can I say? I'd rather sit in the park with my toddler than thrust her before a black hole like Eight Below. It's how Hollywood trains children to accept certain modes of storytelling and to accept being condescended to with a cheerful lack of discrimination. Call it a gateway drug for the drippy dope dealt by peddlers like Garry Marshall and Shawn Levy and Michael Bay: you can try to nip it in the bud, or you can tacitly agree to keep breeding adults as suggestible and pliant as two-year-olds. I mean, there comes a point where we must recognize that this insatiable desire to accept any old feel-good garbage without question has become more than just a problem at the Cineplex. Originally published: February 17, 2006.