Reviewed by: Paul T. Andersen
As a father of four, I like the premise of this film. When dad is in desperate trouble and everyone has given him up for dead, his children come to his rescue against all odds. Overall, this is a enjoyable, outdoor action adventure that the whole family can enjoy together. With a couple of reservations (explained below), I recommend it as an uplifting viewing experience.
The movie is set in modern Alaska—moving from a remote, seaside village (populated by both whites and Indians) to awesome inland mountain wilderness. The whole film is full of beautiful aerial photography, huge vistas, glaciers, animals, and all kinds of great Alaskan scenery. A father and his two young teenagers have moved to the village from Chicago after Mom died. Jake Barnes (the father—played by Dirk Benedict), was an airline pilot flying 747s. Now he is part of a small air service, making a more meager but satisfying living as a bush pilot with a small Piper float plane. Both he and his daughter Jessie (Thora Birch) have adapted well to the outdoor life. However, son Shawn (Vincent Kartheiser) is still in culture shock and is angry at this father for taking them so far from home. He is increasingly rebellious and even gets in minor trouble with the law. Jake is very concerned and is trying to be a good father. In an emotional outburst, the son says to his father, “I wish you had died, not her.” The father clearly has done nothing to deserve this. Moment later, just before dark, Jake is called away on an emergency flight to deliver antibiotics to a remote inland village. Alone, he bravely winds his way through the canyons and passes, but crashes in a sudden storm in mountain fog. When Shawn realizes his father might be in trouble, he is instantly concerned and desperately regrets his last words. Search teams fail to locate the plane. When it becomes apparent that the authorities are giving up, Shawn and Jessie set out in a race against time to rescue father on their own. Their search is hindered by a highly-equipped and crafty poacher (Charlton Heston), a young orphaned polar bear and their own inexperience in the extremely rugged wilderness.
Frankly, when I first saw that Dirk Benedict (the handsome, wise-cracking skirt chaser in “The A-Team” television series) was playing the father in “Alaska,” I was concerned. But in this film, Benedict takes on a completely different role, nothing at all like the A-Team character. He does a good job of playing a concerned and caring father.
“Alaska” contains a small amount of violence, integral to the plot, but all is handled tastefully. (A polar bear is shot, but we don’t actually see it. A bear cub defends itself against poachers by struggling and biting. A bad guy is accidentally shot with a tranquilizer dart and rendered unconscious.) There is no vulgarity. A little bad language is included to express considerable emotional frustration (“damn,” “hell,” and “God”), but none of the language is gratuitous and all comes only from the bad guys and the rebellious son.
What I found most bothersome was the film’s promotion of the mystical Indian idea of “spirit guides.” Both a bald eagle and a bear are represented as having become “spirit guides” for characters in “Alaska”—watching over them and guiding them from danger. As a Christian, I am getting more than a little tired of Hollywood films reverently promoting the superiority of Indian mysticism. This film would have been better without it. A playful polar bear cub subtly becomes a “spirit guide” to Shawn in the story, leading him to the downed plane—although the boy does not realize it until near the end. He only finds father when he abandons his own instincts and trusts the bear, as a “wise” Indian suggested. Thankfully, the significance of this will pretty much go over the heads of most kids—and the subject is not dealt upon or explained. Most kids will simply focus on how cute the daring little bear is.
Directed by Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser, “Alaska” is basically about coming of age and has various elements that commend it from a Christian point of view. The story takes a boy from rebellion and self-centeredness to self-sacrifice and genuine love in the end. The importance of not giving up is emphasized. Hard work and perseverance are rewarded. Evil is punished. Throughout the story, the daughter shows lots of concern for her often naive brother. The importance of family is promoted. Unfortunately, there is no expression of belief in God in this movie. God does not get credit for the beauty of nature, nor is He consulted in emergency—even by the father facing death. In the end, the boy thanks the bear “for helping me find my way.” Obviously, all people would much better find their way by following Jesus Christ, and not some cuddly polar bear.
The film is well photographed throughout. The scenery is fabulous and sweeping! The acting is good. There is some great action and suspense, and the humor is clean. “Alaska” will keep your kids attention, is enjoyable for adults, and is a better choice than many other “family” movies released in the 1996 season. It provides decent, clean entertainment. It should provide Christian parents with some good discussion time with their kids.