20 January 2009

The Last Winter

Directed by Larry Fessenden
Written by Larry Fessenden & Robert Leaver
Full credits from IMDb

It might not be as edifying or as action-inspiring as An Inconvenient Truth, but the fictional The Last Winter is sure a hell of a lot more fun. Both touch on similar themes: global warming, the destructive effects of oil. But director Fessenden lacks Al “Look at Me!” Gore’s shameless self-promotion and stern lecturing tone; instead, he dramatizes the cost of climate change with transcendental lunacy. It’s a horror movie, set in Palin country—ANWR namely—which Fessenden often shoots from the air as a white, desolate tundrascape, broken only by the occasional rock, orange flag or rickety station house. “Pure white nothingness,” one character observes. “It looks like the last place on Earth.”

Stationed at this remote location, and dependent on visitors for fish, cigarettes and romance novels, a crew of oil company employees performs quotidian duties and scientific tests while waiting for the drilling to begin. Simpleminded debates about environmental preservation versus energy independence—between a crusty oilman (Ron Perlman) and the environmental supervisor (James LeGros), the Zelig of oil disasters—take a backseat to Fessenden’s graceful filmmaking style: the neon-green spotlighted compositions in the pitchblack Alaskan night, the blinding light of day reflected off the endless plains of snow, the reverse tracking shots that slowly move away from stationary subjects down narrow hallways.

With creepy style, Fessenden suggests that something isn’t right in Alaska, beyond the fact that temperatures are steadily rising and the tundra is thawing for the first time in thousands of years. Perlman wants to get his equipment up there by any means necessary, while LeGros cautions against it. Unlike the petty human dramas, including a love triangle playing out among the team, the film at first suggests that nature is emotionless: it simply adapts to changes, and we’re left struggling to survive. Except here the extreme climate changes seem to be unleashing Mother Nature’s warriors: either evil spirits or crazy-causing gases.

Fessenden’s film recalls several other stories: as an outpost horror movie, it evokes Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World; later, as a wilderness survival movie, it recalls Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Akira Kurosawa’s “The Blizzard,” from his Dreams. And it evokes The Mist, with its space-madness-on-earth strangers stranded together amid mortal dangers, though it’s anti-Exxon rather than anti-military.

Before he gets all apocalyptic about the end result of global warming, Fessenden gets metaphysical about it, pitching oil drillers as grave robbers and the real threat of global warming as “something beyond science,” namely the unleashing of hitherto entombed ghosts; oil, after all, used to be fossils, frozen deep under the Alaskan earth that oil-burning is now freeing from its icy prison. The Last Winter is an intriguing and finger-pointing addition to the global warming canon that’s still sufficiently wacky to be a thoughtful hoot. And isn’t it by making something fun that you teach people to take it seriously? Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:

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