Treading on Thin Ice, by David Bax
Seeing as director Ken Kwapis’ last feature film was 2009’s He’s Just Not That Into You, it’s no surprise that he was tapped to direct Big Miracle. It’s another feel-good movie with an outcome you can practically see from the start, chockablock with famous faces, mostly in too-small roles. While it should be said that it comes close to soaring above its own strictures, it finally tumbles back down into its banal inevitability.
Big Miracle is the true story of three California gray whales who become trapped under the ice along the coast of a town on the northern tip of Alaska. They have a few underwater miles in which to swim but only one hole big enough to surface for air and both of those are closing in due to an early winter. When an Anchorage TV news reporter (John Krasinski) discovers them and shoots a brief story about it, the tale spreads across the nation and indeed the world. Soon people are coming from all over to report on the story, to help the whales and, more often than not, to help themselves.
While the lead roles of the film can likely be said to belong to Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, Kwapis calls on talented character actors and comedians to fill in even some of the smallest parts. Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Baker, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Daly, Stephen Root, James LeGros, Bruce Altman, John Michael Higgins, Rob Riggle and Vinessa Shaw all appear, some of them only for a scene or two.
The far less star studded vector of the cast is that inhabited by the natives to that part of Alaska. They are a culture that has long depended on the hunting and killing of whales for survival. As a result, they have their own interests in the story. Of course, so does everyone else. The newspeople (Krasinski, Bell, Higgins, Daly) see big ratings and career advancements. The oil tycoon (Danson) sees a chance to fix his public image, as do the members of President Reagan’s administration (Altman, Shaw) and the more local government (Root). The struggling inventors (LeGros, Riggle) envision great publicity for their ice-thawing machines. The closest the movie comes to altruism is with Baker’s character, who is too rich to want anything but to help and with wildlife expert Nelson and military man Mulroney, who are simply doing their jobs.
And then there is Barrymore’s character. In a sense, she is also doing her job. She is a Greenpeace activist but the film seems confused about what it’s trying to say about her. On the one hand, she is the romantic lead, the person our hero (Krasinski) is meant to desire. On the other hand, she is the worst advertisement possible for Greenpeace. She embodies every negative stereotype of the liberal activist. She is strident and condescending and too blindly unwavering in her abstract idealism to even consider another person’s point of view or that she might get further toward her goal with a bit of compromise. I hated her and I’m half convinced the screenwriters did too.
Setting that bit aside, the film’s best feature is actually the way it deals with the self-centered nature of the characters. Like recent documentary Carbon Nation, the film is not a bright-eyed cheer for the moral righteousness of helping the environment. Rather, it is exploring the pragmatic ways that people can be coerced into environmentalism when they are made to see the immediate benefits to them as individuals.
Sadly, the film crashes back into mediocrity eventually. Characters make decisions based not on their personalities but because they are forced to by the cruel deity of the Hollywood screenplay. Well-rounded sympathetic characters are suddenly treated as villains and smug, schoolmarmish, humorless pieces of waste are inexplicably coveted.
Kwapis, as it turns out, is merely an above-average hack. When the screenplay allows it, there are sequences that will absolutely pick you up and carry you. Still, he lacks even a shred of the personal vision that might overcome the script’s clumsier moments. He could probably make a decent journeyman if plied with the right material but we’ll have to keep waiting to see. There’s ultimately nothing even close to transcendent in Big Miracle.