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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Spirits in the Snow
by Donald Levit

An unrecognizable pre-Matt Dillon James Arness scared the pants off us kids as The Thing in a tidy, tense movie from Christian Nyby. Three decades later, John Carpenter’s remake dropped all subtlety and suspense for overkill slime. In The Last Winter, filmmaker Larry Fessenden now brings his signature indie art-horror sensibility to a parallel cautionary tale.

Showing at the Lincoln Center “Film Comments Selects” immediately prior to commercial release, and posited as “an ode to the civilization we have squandered“ plus the endangered planet we inhabit, the fiction takes for its backdrop such hot-button topics as global warming, the search for and transportation of oil, conniving corporate greed, and plain human shortsightedness, as against unorganized environmentalism and innate respect for nature.

Sparse special effects are pretty hokey and, along with location (northern Iceland won out over Canada, Greenland and story-setting Alaska), limited by finances, but this also helps to reinforce a parallel, Conradian theme of true horrors existing within the individual as much as externally “out there.”

This is not exactly tourist-poster Far North. Near-featureless white that curtains Evil as well as Good and thus drew Melville’s Ahab and Poe’s Pym, is the blank canvas against which wraith spirit herds thunder and black gold, scavenger crows, incinerated corpses and parka’d men are framed. Even were it not already on many tongues, the message of industrial-consumer abuse and Earth’s reaction is obvious from the get-go--whether absurdly so, or as simplified teaching-preaching, will depend on the viewer -- though the story evenhandedly blames no one and everyone, each a mix of the admirable and the myopic.

The plot is nothing new, rehashing as it does scores of sci-fi-slash-horror films over many years. Following a North Industries promo video selling its capitalist “Trust, Risk, Results” petroleum extraction and shipping in “Alaska, vast wilderness of the north,” the characters are easily enough introduced in that company’s isolated prefab compound. The usual array: a couple of experts backed by mechanic, radio operator, indigenous guide, indigenous cook.

Among them are theoretically independent environmental-impact specialist Jim Hoffman (James LeGros), a newcomer dubious about North’s plans while trying to detail and explain severe changes in the immediate biosphere, and already sharing a bed with Abby Sellers (Connie Britton), who is temporarily in charge and cares for, and yet spies on, him.

The human complication, an immemorial one, arises with the return of operations head Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), a company man set on success come hell or high water, and Abby’s boss and older now-ex-lover. The non-human difficulty has already begun to make itself felt in untoward temperature swings in a decided warming pattern, sporadic violent winds, thinning ten-thousand-year-old permafrost, communications and other equipment malfunctions, and herd footprints and borealis-like visions that appear to some but not others of the group.

The work of Eskimo totems rallying to the flag, of Lovecraftian ghouls unleashed by drilling and melting, the annoyed retaliation of an ill-treated ecosystem, the baleful effects of seeping “sour gas” hydrogen sulfide, or the unbalanced imaginations of individuals? Whatever the causes, “it’s too late now,” things unravel, men turn on themselves and each other. Starting with the youngest and therefore most susceptible (a film début for Zach Gilford, as Maxwell McKinder), by ones and twos, the representatives of dominant, destructive Civilization succumb, be it to inner or outer demons.

Grade-school-primer plotting, imagining, dialogue and acting are enough to do this all in, without even needing the final coup de grâce reverse-gears to a deserted hospital. As a TV weatherman recounts worldwide climate catastrophe, the camera stops just short of revealing what lies above and beyond lapping waters.

Restraint does not have to be pedestrian like this, especially when the result is not remotely scary despite minimalist music that says it is. The Last Winter will prove the mere tip of the iceberg. Documentaries having till now carried the torch with regard to The 11th Hour’s “balance with nature that humans have shifted to the utmost extreme,” a flood of green fictions is a good bet to follow.

(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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