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Starring: Thora Birch, Vincent Kartheiser, Dirk Benedict, Charlton Heston Directed by: Fraser C. Heston Written by: Andy Burg and Scott Myers


"Alaska" feels like a movie that would have been better served if it had been made to play in IMAX or OMNIMAX Theatres. It is a terrific movie to look at. The Alaskan landscape is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, all that beautiful scenery is at the mercy of a story without conviction about people who garner no real interest, played by actors who look extremely bored - which is strange, considering they're in a part of the world that is truly unmatched in it's natural beauty.

A widower named Jake Barnes (Dirk Benedict) has moved his family out to Alaska from the hustle and bustle of Chicago. His son, Sean (Vincent Kartheiser) isn't adapting too well to the great outdoors. Jake used to fly commercial jets, but is apparently emotionally unable to fulfill his duties as a commercial pilot after his wife passed on, so now he delivers toilet paper (yes, toilet paper) to the town. One day, while on a routine toilet paper flight into a harsh storm, his plane crashes somewhere in the mountains near a cliff known as "Devil's Thumb". After some local pilots check the area surrounding Devil's Thumb and come up empty, it's up to Jake's son and daughter, Jessie (Thora Birch) to pack up some necessities and head out into the wilderness to search for their father. Along the way, they're befriended by a baby polar bear whom they affectionately refer to as "Cubby", and they encounter some mean old poachers led by Colin Perry (Charlton Heston).

During their search, we get plenty of establishing shots and sweeping camera movements showing the landscape's everlasting beauty. While those shots work as a kind of travelogue in showing us the land, they also demonstrate the problem with the movie. As breathtaking as the scenery in the film is, it is never used as anything more than a simple background. I never once got the feeling that the characters actually inhabited their surroundings. There are a couple scenes that do work and are exciting (one involving the kids paddling their way through some tough rapids, another involving their attempts to safely get down a rather steep embankment), but the whole tone of the movie feels wrong. There isn't any conviction to the story. The situation here would be a bit frightening, but director Fraser C. ("Needful Things") Heston treats it like a goofy carnival ride.

However, director Heston (Charlton's son) isn't helped by a lackluster screenplay from Andy Burg and Scott Myers. It seems pretty clear that the writers have no idea what it would be like to be young and out alone in the wilderness, searching for a loved one who may or may not be alive. The banter between the kids is awfully dull, and the attempts at humor all fall flat. Thora Birch, who became most known for her role as Jack Ryan's daughter in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger", is a fine actress who has a solid career ahead of her, but is not given anything to work with here. Vincent Kartheiser is an actor unfamiliar to me, but he makes no impact at all. I never found anything at all likable about his character, thus I couldn't root for him. Dirk Benedict is an actor who seems to have made a career out of acting poorly. He's every bit as bad here as he was in T.V.'s "Battlestar Galactica". At least he's consistent.

Still, the look of the movie is terrific. Because of this, I have a feeling younger viewers might find the film thoroughly enjoyable. There are the scenes I mentioned that do indeed work, and there are some sequences involving polar bears that are cute and fun to watch. But for me, watching "Alaska" was like staring at a series of postcards for two hours - it certainly looks enticing and I wouldn't mind visiting there someday, but there is only a certain amount of enjoyment when looking from a distance. That's how the movie feels. It's seemingly in love with the landscape, but only from a distance. There is a scene where one characters says: "These kids were brought up on MTV and video games. They have no appreciation of the TRUE rugged beauty of the land." Funny - I felt the same way regarding the filmmakers.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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