Opened: Sept. 26, 1997 | Rated: R
For a good thriller to be completely engrossing, it needs to disorient the audience enough to make us overcome our natural tendency to play Monday morning quarterback.
Empathy aside, if we spend every reel thinking of things the characters should have but didn't, the movie is failing.
In "The Edge," two men accustom to city living are trapped in the rugged Alaskan mountains by a plane crash and have to find their way back to civilization. They are hungry, freezing, panicked and desperate. The don't really trust each other and they're stalked by a bear to boot.
A movie-of-the-week premise to be sure, but these men are played by Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, two talented actors who create succulent characters from a screenplay by David Mamet, a master of building tension between men.
Nevertheless, "The Edge" invites the question "Why didn't they....?" on innumerable occasions. At first this is merely distracting, but before long it begins to grate.
As the film opens Hopkins, a personable but serious and suspicious billionaire, is accompanying his fashion model trophy wife (Elle MacPhereson) on a photo shoot in Alaska. Baldwin is the photographer, but it is implied he and his whole crew are also dear old friends of Hopkins. Why and how they know each other is never adequately explained.
But after one night in a rustic lakeside lodge, Hopkins, Baldwin and two other buddies out scouting the area crash in a small plane. The pilot is killed and soon the other disposable guy becomes lunch for a very, very big bear in a frightening scene made even more so purely on the strength of the disposable guy's screams.
The two survivors strike out for the lodge on foot, beginning a trek of several days. The film's drama comes as much from how these men handle their stress as it does from the adventure.
Hopkins plays his billionaire as artificially calm, making logical deductions about the best direction to move in and the most likely ways to persevere. Baldwin's photographer is often panicked and at times is ready to just lay down and die.
Despite a personal distrust between the men that adds a thick layer to the plot -- Hopkins suspects Baldwin of bagging his wife -- and the occasionally gripping action scenes, "The Edge" is still not captivating enough to prevent people from whispering to each other what they would do if they were being chased through the woods by a Kodiak.
After a search helicopter misses them because they were deep in a forest, you think "I'd move out in the open where they could be seen from the air." But even after two more hand-wringing sneak attacks by the man-eating bear, they still stay in the forest, where they can't see planes overhead or the bear in the brush until it's too late.
I won't bore you with all the things I thought I could do better to survive (and believe me, I'm no outdoorsman). The point is that I had time to think of them at all.
There is plenty of excitement in "The Edge." There were even times I was holding my breath (man, that bear is scary). But I still made note of improbable anomalies in the weather (rain at night, snow the next morning), unlikely hunting and fashion design skills (they skin an animal with a pocketknife and make parkas from it's hide) and a bothersome lack of remorse over the death of the disposable guy -- he's never even mentioned after becoming what a bear does in the woods.
Granted much of this nit-picking I could have filed away under "suspension of disbelief," but to do that I need something else to latch on to, and "The Edge" doesn't have it.
Director Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors") focuses on his rich central characters and provides occasional heart-stopping thrills, but it's never enough to make us stop thinking about how much smarter we are than the stars.