Monday, December 10, 2012

Freaky weather (The Last Winter)

Scene from The Last Winter (2006)

It's December in central Illinois. I'd love a spell of crisp winter weather, and even a picturesque sprinkling of pre-holiday snow, but instead, the weekend treated us to gray skies and drizzle, with the temperature hovering sullenly in the high forties. A mere week ago, the weekend brought a high of seventy degrees. That's right, in December. Seventy.

My husband decided that he didn't want to buy a Christmas tree. It just didn't feel like Christmas, he opined. It was too damn warm. I jokingly volunteered to write him a parable in the form of a children's story, How Global Warming Stole Christmas, but the truth is, although I don't like being cold or driving on icy roads any more than the next person, this weather's been creeping me out.

Here in central Illinois, we first saw 90 degrees in March. July brought us a record-breaking 107. (Fahrenheit on all of these, for anyone who may be reading outside of the USA. And by any measurement: freakishly warm!!) Along with the record high temperatures, we had a drought. I'm not sure that everyone in the region put two and two together.

As most people I know were exulting in the unseasonable weather, I began to feel like a less melodramatic version of Cassandra from the Greek myth. Am I the only one who realizes that, in this case, warm = bad? (The only one besides Al Gore, that is....)

And then this weekend, as I sat around watching videos I checked out from the library as it was too gray and gloomy to bird, I found a film that matches my mood: Larry Fesseden's The Last Winter (2006).

On the face of it, it's a horror movie. Set in an unspecified near future, where Congress has approved drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (and for birders like me, that alone is enough to qualify as a "horror movie,") the film focuses on a team sent out (to survey?) before the actual drilling begins: leader Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman, who does "asshole" so well); his partner Abby (Connie Britton); his nephew Max (Zach Gilford); the barely tolerated environmentalist (James LeGros); a cook who is a native woman (Joanne Shenandoah); and others.

Horror movie buffs like me probably can't watch an isolated team out in the Arctic without immediately thinking of John Carpenter's masterpiece, The Thing (1982), where the alien shapeshifter monster slowly works its way through an Arctic exploration team. Since this is one of my favorite movies of all time, any such comparisons are bound to be odious (and don't even get me started on that so-called "prequel" made last year with the same name!)

Before long, however, The Last Winter embarked into different territory: less claustrophobic, more environmental. It's true cinematic cousin (apart from An Inconvenient Truth) is not The Thing, but the 1992 Sean Connery picture Medicine Man, in which the quest for new drugs from the rain forest turns into a lament for the rain forest's imminent destruction. By which I mean that humanity's exploitation of the environment is the central enemy of The Last Winter.

The theme becomes apparent almost immediately. As Perlman's character Pollack complains about the slow progress building roads out to the drill site, the on-staff environmentalist Hoffman tries to explain that the weather has been too abnormally warm to allow road construction. The permafrost is melting. The heavy machinery just can't get through.

Hoffman in his hut

Of course, Pollack is having none of this. Americans want the oil, he insists, and he will get it, even if that means having Hoffman removed. But meanwhile, his nephew Max has been having some strange visions out by the test well. Members of the staff begin to behave erratically. Hoffman's theories swing from the mundane (sour gas) to the extravagant (preternatural beings awakened by the melting of the permafrost.) The native cook tells of the native American spirit, the Windigo.

Regardless of the reason, the results are rather gruesome.

In the end, the low budget, CGI "monsters" aren't really that effective. Even so, I would recommend this film, to everyone who understands that a February rain in the Arctic is just as horrific as any monster you can dream of. Or to everyone who wishes that An Inconvenient Truth just wasn't so earnest and pedantic. Or for those who find the fact that any Internet news story about the environment inevitably attracts a comment of "drill, baby, drill" to be scarier than Pinhead, Jason, and Freddy combined....

Well, for all of you, plus those who just enjoy a slow-burning, mostly psychological horror flick, go ahead and check out The Last Winter.

And if you're wondering why this movie review is fodder for a blog devoted to birding, no, it's not because of the rather unpleasant scenes with the ravens, but because the final scene of the movie (no spoilers here)...well, it's going to stay with me. And if you love birds (and their Arctic habitats), it's worth watching.


  1. Interesting post! Our weather up here in the UP has been normal, albeit on the dry side. It's very cold! But, the Midwest is being hit with really weird stuff, including that cruel drought, and summer temps that would melt me like butter in a hot pan. "The Thing" is also one of my favorite movies; love it! The Windego is a creepy story, the cannibal spirit/curse passing from one person to another. But, as for monsters, I say if permafrost monsters get released by global warming, we asked for it. MOM

  2. Emily, I did not know you liked horror movies! I love John Carpenter's "The Thing." Cool!