Film Review: The Edge (1997)

What happens when you plop down a couple of famous faces in the Alaskan wilderness and pair them with a gross misrepresentation of animal behavior? Well, you get 1997’s The Edge, which stars Anthony Hopkins (at his most regal) and Alec Baldwin (at his most greasy).

The Edge is a survivalist drama that strives for the existential power of 1975’s Jaws, but never comes remotely close. Unlike that Spielbergian classic, which eloquently parsed the apathy of nature and the dithering norms of the political process, The Edge is thematically muddy, often to a frustrating degree.

The characters are also unremarkable. They are thinly written, and the two central actors – despite being highly formidable performers – bring very little to the proceedings. Hopkins plays the lead role of Charles Morse, an insanely wealthy, not to mention insanely pompous, billionaire. While accompanying his significantly younger significant other (a model named Mickey, who is the biggest gold digger since the original 49ers) on a photo shoot, Morse decides to take a side trip deeper into the mountains with the shoot’s cameraman Robert Green.

This character is played with manic energy by Alec Baldwin, in a performance that has to be described as a cross between tongue in cheek and general lunacy. Baldwin’s Green is a bundle of bizarre cackles, leading queries and disingenuous spunk. You don’t really believe in him for a second. However, at least he leaps off the screen more than Hopkins’ Morse, who basically spends his time staring off into space or peddling grating anecdotes.

Anyway, these two idiots find themselves in a real pickle when a plot-convenient flock of birds sends their small airplane tumbling to Earth. Emerging from the crisp albeit brutal beauty of a mountain lake, Morse and Green are joined by Stephen, played by Harold Perrineau (of Oz and The Matrix fame), who also survived the crash. From here, the plot descends into a flabby battle of wills between Hopkins’ and Baldwin’s characters, a dynamic defined (partially at least) by Baldwin’s character saying the name “Charles” more often than one can count. (Try drinking to each utterance, or don’t, as you’ll probably die.)

The Edge was written by the revered wordsmith David Mamet – a shocking revelation considering that the film fails mainly through its insufficient script. Morse and Green just don’t make much sense as characters. The thematic subtext of their relationship – which seems to broach interesting subject matter like economics, masculinity and personal worldviews – also feels stunted and half-formed.

Far worse than this, however, is the way that Mamet and director Lee Tamahori seek to characterize the concept of nature. As opposed to the far superior (and similarly set) survival film The Grey, The Edge never attempts to offer more than a superficial depiction of nature’s blunt, apathetic ferocity, seen here mainly in the form of a large kodiak bear that relentlessly hunts the men.

The central problem is that the film never attaches a metaphysical connotation to this particular animal, circumscribing it as just a bear. This wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world if the film also didn’t have the animal behave in such an artificial and contrived fashion. Consider the scene where the bear makes its first appearance, which culminates with Morse, Green and Stephen having to cross a tree which is perched precariously over a thundering waterfall (in order to escape).

The bear in this instance not only follows them throughout a large swath of wilderness, but even attempts to shake Hopkins’ character loose from the tree trunk. This isn’t intended to say that a bear might NEVER do this, but it feels unlikely. Additionally, the way that director Tamahori stages this action an audience is more likely to hoot with laughter than to scream with terror; the big hairy oaf just looks like he wants to play instead of kill.

The Edge is filled with these types of laughable antics, where the action is supposed to be riveting but ultimately comes off as rather flaccid for one reason or another. Yet, even quieter moments, where one expects the peripheral psychological tension to be fleshed out, often end up leading nowhere. In fact, there are several scenes where the lack of a discernible point is even commented upon. In one scene this involves Morse instructing Stephen to make a spear (to hunt for fish) to take his mind off the fact that the group is hopelessly lost. In another it is Baldwin’s Green who is being asked a frivolous question in order to momentarily forget his rapidly increasing despondency. Both cases serve as accurate summations of what is going in The Edge, which is simply not much of anything. There’s a void at the heart of this tale of survival, and not even the gorgeous setting (or the pristine cinematography) can save it.

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