Saturday, January 29, 2011
Longtime friends Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore) love hitting the ski slopes, Dan for snowboarding and Joe for skiing. One Sunday they make a trip to a New England ski resort with Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell), who is still a beginner on the slopes. After a day of watching Parker tumble down the bunny hills, Joe invokes the sacred rite of bros before hoes; he insists that they have at least a little fun for their money and actually go down some challenging slopes. Parker overhears them arguing and offers to let them go on without her, but for some reason is convinced to go on a more difficult course with the two guys. However, when they head back to the ski lift, the operator is closing it up because a storm is coming in. They whine and bribe him into letting them on for one last run, and get what every skier truly desires --- a ski slope, free of other skiers. The operator gets called into the boss's office, though, and has someone else man the ski lift. The new guy is told that there are only three skiers left on the mountain, and then they can close. Well, that guy was wrong; there were three people on the ski lift and three others almost finished skiing down the mountain. When the first three finish their run, the new operator turns off the ski lift, and pretty soon the whole resort has closed. That leaves Dan, Joe and Parker stranded on a ski lift far above the ground, with a storm coming. And this place is only open on the weekends, so nobody will find them there until Friday, at the earliest. What do they do? They can't stay up there all week, they'll die of exposure. Even staying overnight will guarantee a bad case of frostbite. If they jump, they will definitely get hurt; they're up too high, and the snow beneath them is compacted. If they try to climb the ski lift cable to a point where they can climb down or jump safely, they will shred their hands on the razor-sharp cables. And even if they can get down safely, wolves have been howling all night, and they sound really close. They've got to do something, though, and all their choices are bad.
Writer/director Adam Green is not a big name in Hollywood (as the cast here indicates), but he has had some small success with the 80s horror movie throwback, Hatchet. Here, he aims a little bit higher and tries to craft a thriller that is simple, yet terrifying. The movie is certainly simple. Three friends, helpless, and out of safe options for survival. The three basic threats the characters face are all illustrated well; the drop will break your bones, the wire will slice your hands, and frostbite will take away your skin. The film's gore is not terribly graphic, but the sound effects that go along with it make the movie feel very gruesome. Green definitely succeeded in making a suspenseful film that exploits many primal fears.
The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, though. The acting is mediocre, with only Shawn Ashmore having anything resembling a dramatic moment, and it took over an hour to get to that point. It's not all their fault, though. Green's script, while occasionally funny, tends more toward lameness. For every good line (the best is a reference to the sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi), there is about ten minutes of boring, complete with wooden acting. Green has not mastered the art of having actors read his dialogue naturally (or maybe he hasn't mastered the art of writing natural dialogue), but he is getting better at building suspense. This isn't a terrific thriller, but it is a major step forward for him, artistically.
But those are just baby steps. The audience knows within minutes of the group being stuck on the ski lift that someone will jump/fall and someone else will climb the cables. When you only have two options and three characters, it's pretty obvious. Green doesn't quite capture all the suspense that this story has to offer; he basically just chronicles what happens, he doesn't show that one act is more important than the next. That's too bad, because even with poor dialogue and inferior acting, this movie could have been something special.
There is just a lot of stupid getting in the way of that, though. What kind of idiots knowingly refuse to bundle up when faced with frostbite? Shawn Ashmore's character was especially guilty of this, rarely using his jacket hood and leaving his coat partially unzipped. When Emma Bell's character lost a glove, she didn't pull the hand into her sleeve. They didn't pull down their hats further or breathe into their jackets or bundle together for warmth or anything. Morons. What about the poor character that's going to slice open their hands climbing across the ski cable? Wouldn't that be less of an issue if they wrapped their socks around their gloves, or tore their shirts into strips and done the same thing? Apparently, sliced open hands are not as big of an issue to these characters as they are to me. And let's talk about the wolves. While a New England ski lodge is definitely a more likely setting to have wolves as the enemy than, say The Day After Tomorrow, it's still pretty damned unlikely. In about one minute's worth of research, I was able to find from a reputable source that there were only three fatal wolf attacks on humans in the United States in the twentieth century, and all three were only fatal because of rabies. Yes, wolves are kind of scary if you don't like dogs, but if they haven't eaten anybody's American children in the past century, I think we can phase them out as a credible threat in movies.
On the other hand, if you have a fear of heights, this is a movie that will freak you out. It's not corny, and there is no unstoppable killer that must kill all promiscuous teens. This is a great idea for a film that could have been much better with slightly smarter characters (at least they weren't "horror movie stupid"), better dialogue, and a lack of wolves.