Alaska: Spirit of the Wild

Published: Friday, April 20 2001 9:03 a.m. MDT

Alaska is ideal for a large-format movie: vaulting mountain peaks, 30-story blocks of bluish ice, three shades of shaggy bears and whales belly-flopping into the ocean. And the northern lights — the shimmering wisps — could carry an IMAX-scale film on their own.

So I wondered during "Alaska: Spirit of the Wild" why narrator Charlton Heston was given such a thick script. We don't need to be told that this last frontier is "a place shaped by ice and solitude." As we watch sea lions undulating through the waves, we don't need him intoning, "The sea lion moves underwater with the ease of a circus performer." The strength of large-format cinema is in its visual impact; it's distracting to have Mr. Moses describe everything we're seeing.

Of course I like some narration, such as the informative snippets about how native tribes call the shifting ice "white thunder" and the fact that Alaska has 5,000 glaciers and 3 million lakes. But really, less is more when it comes to words and music added to a large-format film. I want to listen to the wind and wildlife, not Heston's comments on them. Alaska's wilderness doesn't need a lot of orchestral enhancements, either. The deep-blue ocean, deep-green pines blanketing the mountainsides and the aurora borealis are abundantly spectacular on their own.

"Alaska: Spirit of the Wild" does, however, make for a pleasurable 39-minute trip away from the Utah desert. The seasonal changes in the sky, tundra and great bodies of water are enhanced by time-lapse photography; we're transported through winter's end and the short, intense summer, into the onset of another winter. The film puts us on river banks with brown bears, under water with minute salmon hatchlings and yards away from humpback whales breaching and lolling together.

We learn how polar bears keep warm: They carry a thick layer of fat while their fur conducts even tiny amounts of sunlight to their heat-absorbing black skin. Seems like that would have to be one bulky layer of insulation, but the polar bears move fairly gracefully. They're among the memorable characters in "Alaska," along with the black bear playing in the water and the elegant caribou raising their racks of antlers.

But apparently the filmmakers felt they had to set up conflicts — potentially violent ones — to keep our attention. Wolves are portrayed as evil villains disrupting the peaceable arctic kingdom. Perhaps the screenwriters thought a movie about the interdependent ecosystem that preserves the wilderness' balance wasn't riveting enough.

If the makers of "Alaska" wanted to highlight conflict and danger, they might have turned our attention to the threats of oil drilling in the state's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"Alaska: Spirit of the Wild" ends with Heston booming, "It is a place little contaminated by the present, where we can rediscover a vitality and beauty vanishing from our lives . . . we all want to know such a place still exists." His failure to mention the possibility of oil development is the movie's principal shortcoming.

"Alaska: Spirit of the Wild" is at the Cricket SuperScreen at Jordan Commons through Aug. 31.


E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com