In a spaceship, in an underwater vessel or in an Arctic or Antarctic station, some of the best science fiction takes place in an isolated setting. More precisely, such locations are the convention of the narrower genre of sci-fi horror, in which remote environments combined with tight, claustrophobic spaces are perfect for the unleashing of our worst fears. This is, of course, obvious to any viewer, who recognizes these are places difficult or impossible to escape or be rescued from. But more importantly these settings allow for psychological conflicts that parallel, heighten or even overshadow the genre's typical conflicts with aliens, sentient computers or supernatural beings.
Take Larry Fessenden's latest film, The Last Winter, which is set in an Arctic station and follows all the rules of the sci-fi horror genre, while almost completely leaving out the physical conflict. Yes, it features a supernatural threat, but it doesn't need one, because the film works so brilliantly as simply a psychological mood piece. In most of these kinds of films, the creature or villain is the pay-off for the audience that seeks some sort of spectacle, or at least some material baddie to make for a cinematically appropriate, externally battled climax. In The Last Winter however, the spectacle actually falls flat because it consists of disappointingly horrible special effects. Good thing the spectacle is unnecessary and disregardable, because otherwise, The Last Winter is an excellent genre film with an honorable and intelligent global warming message mixed in. At least one critic has already referred to it as "The Thing meets An Inconvenient Truth," but that label makes the film seem more lecturing than it truly is. Instead Fessenden manages to merely touch on the global warming issue without being heavy-handed or preachy, and he concentrates primarily on the drama of the characters as they relate to the sparse, blindingly white landscape.
The station here is in Northern Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (substituted with Icelandic shooting locations), where an oil company is looking for places to drill. Like the best of its genre, The Last Winter features a varied team of experts, each played effectively by distinguished character actors. There's the headstrong leader, Ed (Ron Perlman – in the rare normal, human performance), his more-sensitive yet still conservative second-in-command, Abby (Connie Britton), the young new recruit, Max (Zach Gilford) and the nutty mechanic, Motor (Kevin Corrigan). For regional expertise, there are two Native American teammates, one a quiet, reserved, elder type (Pato Hoffman) and the other a lovably plump cook/medic (Joanne Shenandoah).
The trouble for the station begins when Max goes missing while out mapping the territory. When he finally returns, he's not exactly possessed, but he has an equally mysterious nature about him. At first, he just seems spooked, while claiming to have seen things out in the snow. According to him, the land is haunted by the ghosts of the animals that roamed there eons ago, as in those creatures since turned into fossil fuels. Then, obsessed with what he supposedly saw, and set to prove it to the rest of them, he heads out one night with a video camera and no clothes. The next day he is found frozen to death, with his eyes pecked out by birds. Slowly other team members start to lose it, and seemingly non-paranormal yet coincidentally strange accidents occur. And yes, more people end up dead.
Meanwhile, also staying at the station is a pair of environmental scientists, James (James LeGross) and his assistant, Elliot (Jamie Harrold), who cause Ed headaches by pointing out that the weather is too sporadic and the temperature is rising too exponentially for the team to ethically continue their work. Despite the duo's clashes with Ed's ambitions, though, they also are technically working for the oil company. So, even though James means well and wants to make an impact, he is replaceable and therefore not too influential. This somewhat makes Ed and James two sides of the same coin, and neither of them is really more of a protagonist than the other. What is interesting about their tension is that Ed is like an aged strong man while James is like an aged pretty boy, as if they are two passed-over Hollywood action-hero types who can no longer cut it if faced with a villainous threat. So, basically they're both screwed as far as whatever supernatural force might be out there, because it could really care less about what each man's ideals are.
But let's address the problem of that supernatural force, which eventually does materialize on screen in the form of some cheap CGI. It is fair to dismiss the bad-looking apparitions by deciding that they are inconsequential and maybe even just representative of the bad visions in the minds of the characters. The great thing about the eerie events in The Last Winter is that they all could happen under normal circumstances and with perfectly natural explanations. Like Fessenden's other work, particularly his almost equally appreciable previous film, Wendigo, the supernatural is treated as it is typically treated in real life, as a loose possibility to those who might believe in it, but completely ignorable to those who can find other, more rational answers.
Fessenden's genius is his ability to balance themes and ideas, like that of the natural versus supernatural, so that there is tension and also equilibrium. The Last Winter additionally features this balance in its dual non-protagonists, as well as in its ability to be both a sci-fi horror film and a message film. The story compliments and anchors the intentionally communicated issues (again, Fessenden is not subtle, but neither is he forceful), and vice versa, with neither overemphasized.
The Last Winter is very similar to Danny Boyle's Sunshine, another excellent science fiction film from this year, which was unfortunately ignored in theaters. It too featured the conventions of the sci-fi horror genre and it also suffered only from and in its climactic struggle with a material villain, again unnecessary within the film's context. But like The Last Winter, Sunshine worked terrifically as a smartly examined story about the mental capacities of humans put in extreme environments. The two films are atmospherically so different, but psychologically so equivalent. I highly recommend them both, maybe as a double feature.