Polar opposites

Jordan Canning compares two vastly different films: 30 Days of Night and Into the Wild

In this week’s issue, I was planning on comparing two films—30 Days of Night and Into the Wild. Both are set, for the most part, in Alaska, and I was intending to talk about the use of setting in each piece.

But having just finished watching them, a different notion has started forming in my head.

Never have I had such opposing reactions to two films—let alone films that I had intended to compare side by side. This got me thinking about the different ways films can affect us, for good and for bad.

Here I sit, puffy-eyed, having just watched Into the Wild, so moved that I spent the last hour quietly thinking—really thinking—about how the film made me feel.

Written and directed by Sean Penn, and based on a non-fiction novel by Jon Krakauer, the film tells the incredible true journey of Christopher McCandless, who shed his middle class existence for a life of adventure in the North American wilderness.

What makes this film so powerful is the love with which the story was crafted. From Krakauer’s painstakingly researched book, to Penn’s exquisite script and direction, to Emile Hirsch’s rigorous performance, it’s so clear that those involved cared deeply about McCandless’s story – and that they stayed true to the tale they wanted to tell.

A clear, singular and devoted vision in telling a story—I believe that’s what makes the difference between a piece of art with the capacity to move us, and ‘just a movie.’

For those of you who don’t know the story of 30 Days of Night—and believe me, there’s very little to know—it’s about a small Northern town that is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires. Apparently they just googled ‘Alaska’ and discovered the sun doesn’t rise there for weeks at a time—24-hour blood buffet! Faced with this threat, a husband and wife sheriff team must work together to protect a handful of survivors and keep the town intact until the sun rises again in a month.

You would think this would be enough of a plot to sustain 90 minutes of film.

But you would be wrong.

In a fatal pacing error, which can be traced all the way back to the script, the vampires wipe out nearly everyone as soon as they strut into town. Then… they don’t really do all that much.

Somehow the last half dozen humans manage to evade them for—you guessed it—thirty days. You might think it’s due to the quick wit of Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff but, again, you would be wrong. Their ‘plan’ for survival consists mainly of hiding in an attic. They do muster up one good idea, involving flashing the vampires with a sunlamp, but this small triumph is instantly, almost comically, rendered useless when the vampires cut the power.

Fifteen minutes in, I thought to myself, “We’ve got 29 more days of this?!”

That’s why I was so surprised to learn that this garbage barge had been steered by David Slade—the very able director of Hard Candy. Slade’s risky and thrilling first feature was made for less than a million dollars, keeping creative control in the hands of the filmmakers, not the production company.

With a budget of $30 million, I can’t help but think that 30 Days of Night is a case of too many cooks in the kitchen—or too many studio execs with a vested interest in said kitchen—so I imagine the bulk of the film’s failures cannot fall solely on Slade’s shoulders.

There were numerous rewrites of 30 Days of Night—a sure sign there were problems with the story from the beginning. As a script passes from writer to writer, many good things are lost in the process of ‘fixing’ the previous draft. And fixing often means ‘quick fixing’, band-aid solutions to cover up flaws in logic or pithy character development.

Listening to five people try to piece together the same story, with all their individual attitudes and perspectives, will never be as good as hearing it from one person who knows it by heart.

How close was the shooting script to the original vision of the writer? Or to that of David Slade, when he first signed on with the project? However great it might have been, all we have to judge is the finished movie. And, unfortunately, it’s just another movie—and not even one I would recommend.
Sean Penn has said that Christopher McCandless’s story hit close to home, and perhaps it was this personal connection that enabled him to stay so true to his vision for the film. Into the Wild has one clear, strong voice running through it. A voice you quickly come to trust and rely on. It speaks to you. It makes you care. It makes you think. It made me weep.

Into the Wild was nearly three hours long, and I didn’t want it to end. That’s how a good film should make you feel.

30 Days of Night, on the other hand, is ninety minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

Into the Wild is showing at the Mount Pearl Empire Cinemas. 30 Days of Night is at Empire Studios 12 in the Avalon Mall. Call for times and prices.


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28 October 2010

  1. Darcy · October 28, 2010

    Great review, Jordan. I’ve not seen Wild, but 30 Days elicited a similar response of “why did they’s” and “why didn’t they’s” throughout.

    One thing that might have been worth comparing, and may have belonged in your discussion about script changes as well, was that both films are in fact based on a novel. You mentioned that about Wild, but not about 30 Days, which was originally a graphic novel. I picked it up at Downtown Comics for a quick glace through after having viewed the film and was startled by the resemblance of the female vampire in the book to the one portrayed in the film. I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s where the similarities might have ended, though.

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