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Maybe Alaska shouldn't want every movie

Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

Last week was an Alaska-themed stretch for movie trailers. On Wednesday, the preview for "The Grey" -- an action-survival flick starring Liam Neeson and reteaming him with his "A-Team" director Joe Carnahan -- was released. That film tells the story of an oil drilling team whose plane crashes in the Alaska wilderness, leaving them injured, cold, hungry -- and fending off a pack of apparently man-eating wolves.

Then, on Thursday, the trailer for "Big Miracle" -- the movie formerly known as "Everybody Loves Whales" -- was released. That film stars John Krasinski as a Barrow reporter and Drew Barrymore as an environmental activist, telling a version of the true story of three gray whales stranded in the Arctic ice north of Barrow years ago.

They're two very different movies. One is a straight-up action movie, the kind that Liam Neeson has found himself fitting into more and more lately, even as he pushes 60 -- and the title presumably in no way refers to the coloring of his ragged outgrowth of facial hair. The other film is a feel-good story about overcoming the odds for a cause and likely has a touch of romance. It will also carry a heavy message about activism, if this slap-you-in-the-face bit of dialogue from the trailer between the Krasinski and Barrymore's characters is any indication:

Barrymore: "You have whales in trouble, and you didn't call me?"
Krasinski: "I didn't call you because there's nothing you can do."
Barrymore: "There's always something you can do."

Beyond the two films' tones and messages, there is another thing setting them apart. While both take place in Alaska, only one -- "Big Miracle" -- was actually filmed here. "The Grey" was filmed in British Columbia. It joins a long list of films set in Alaska but filmed elsewhere.

Some of the more recent ones: "The Proposal" (filmed in Massachusetts), "30 Days of Night" (filmed mostly in New Zealand), "Insomnia" (British Columbia) and "The Fourth Kind" (Bulgaria and British Columbia). The British Columbia town of Squamish did double duty, portraying both the Alaska village of Nightmute in "Insomnia" and Nome in "The Fourth Kind."

Movies like these are part of the reason why some state legislators are pushing hard for the renewal of the film tax credit program. If the movies are set in Alaska, the logic goes, why not benefit from the multimillion-dollar production process as well?

But maybe we should take a step back and look at which movies we, as Alaskans, should actually want filmed here.

Of those four movies above, only one -- "The Proposal" -- is lighthearted. The others feature vampires in Barrow, murders in Nightmute, and creepy alien abductions in Nome. "Insomnia" is the only one of the four with a rating above 50 percent on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

At a charity event over the summer, my wife and I bought a poster used in the production of "Big Miracle" that seemed like a bit of a risky purchase. If the movie turned out to be good, we could point to the poster and say "Did you ever see that movie 'Big Miracle?' This poster was in it." If it's bad, then we'll have to say "Did you ever see that really terrible movie "Big Miracle?" This was in it. Not sure why we still have it."

For a state that sees more than 1.5 million summer visitors thanks to the relatively-healthy tourism industry, it's hard to say it's a good idea to cast Alaska in a light that associates it with alien abduction, murders and bad movies. 

But maybe it's a good thing. Maybe we can draw a whole new brand of tourists to our state after "Frozen Ground" comes out. The movie set to begin filming in Alaska next month is the story of serial killer Robert Hansen, starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. Surely some entrepeneurial Alaskan will decide to host a morbid tour of the butcher baker's old haunts.

Also falling into the potentially-harmful category is "The Grey," which -- aside from being an excuse to show Liam Neeson punching wolves in the face -- seems rooted in bad science, in which the stranded oil roughnecks are stalked by what appears to be a pack of man-eating wolves. Anyone with a basic understanding of wolves knows that attacks on humans are extraordinarily rare, and even more rare are attacks carried out by a pack against a large group of humans. That's especially true if the wolves haven't been habituated to the presence of humans, as a pack of wolves in the middle of the wilderness wouldn't be. 

It's a similar situation to last year's "Frozen," mercifully filmed in Utah, about three skiers who become stranded on a ski lift after the ski resort's crew forgets they're up there and leaves for the week. That movie also featured a pack of man-eating wolves hellbent on human predation. It's the stuff that irrational phobias are made of, and the film went to the modern-day equivalent of straight-to-video: straight-to-Netflix-Instant.

Are these the kind of things we want people Outside -- already often woefully misinformed about our state -- thinking?

Add to this the now-questionable history of Operation Breakout, the inspiration for "Big Miracle." The Anchorage Press ran an article on Sept. 21 addressing that history, with Reed Bovee, a former Barrow news station manager, taking issue with the film's version of events.

The same article notes that an early script features a Barrow whaling crewmember thrusting a harpoon into an inflatable Greenpeace raft while in the Arctic Ocean -- where the odds of survival are low following a plunge into the frigid waters. The Press calls the scene "cringe-worthy." I'm inclined to agree, but in all fairness, the scene may have been removed from the finished script or film. Inaccuracies like these are why making movies about Alaska, in Alaska, is a tricky proposition.

Maybe it doesn't matter if Alaska is indirectly giving the stamp of approval to movies of questionable accuracy or quality. Movies are movies, and most viewers will know that a movie doesn't represent the entirety of the state. The tax-incentive program seems to be working, if the proliferation of Hollywood movies getting made here the last few years is any indication. And if the movies are going to be made anyway, why not benefit? 

After all, if Liam Neeson is punching wolves in the face, I'm there.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com