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July 31, 2013

Never Cry Wolf

by Franz Patrick


Never Cry Wolf (1983)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The population of the caribou in the Arctic, once in the millions, has experienced a steep decrease over time so the government needs a scientific justification to exterminate the element that is responsible. It is believed that the wolves, Canis lupus, are to blame. Tyler (Charles Martin Smith), a biologist, is chosen to travel to the Arctic, track the pack, and make careful observations of their behavior.

“Never Cry Wolf,” based on Farley Mowat’s autobiography, is a rousing adventure in the most unexpected ways because, for the most part, the protagonist is by himself. Because human interaction is minimized, the screenplay by Curtis Handson, Sam Hamm, and Richard Kletter, is forced to find the wonder in nature through eye-opening images, alien sounds, and the human experience of a scientist trying to survive in a milieu that is way out of his comfort zone.

The film is almost shot like a documentary. By minimizing the use of score, we get a sense that all of what is happening is real, from Tyler getting ready to board a rickety plane to him watching how wolves interact with their environment and each other. The way in which the camera zooms in on what is ought to be seen commands attention, very direct, but never distracting. There is very little distraction from the experience.

Because conversation is rare, Tyler’s narration is helpful and necessary. While we get a sense of how his scientific mind works and a taste of some of his philosophy, I especially enjoyed that the script allows him to go on a tangent at times. For instance, I liked hearing about the extra cases of beer he ordered while slightly out of it the night before, how he felt about being chosen to lead Project Lupine, and his thoughts of reluctance prior to getting on the plane and being dropped off three hundred miles into the wilderness. The extra information enhances what he goes through because we get a chance to know him as a person rather than just a robotic scientist with a mission from the government.

The land is like another character. The snowy mountains, largely untouched by man, evokes an air of majesty. The pride of the mountains in contrast with Tyler’s humility as a person about to become a part of it has poetry and lyricism. The environment is a constant challenge. In one scene, we can see for miles. In the next scene, everything is enveloped by fog, so white that I wondered for a second if the actor was standing on a white screen. But then you look a little closer and see the white creeping along. It is so surreal, almost like looking into a dream.

It dares to straddle the lines between amusement and fear, suspense and disgust, curiosity and thrill. A question: what is for dinner when you run out of food out there in the tundra? The answer made me cover my eyes, squirm in my seat, and squeal out of revulsion. I yelled out, “You’re not going to eat that! No!” Unless I am watching a horror film, it is rare that I feel the pressure to voice something out and direct it to the screen. But this is not an isolated, gross-out scene. It actually becomes relevant to the plot.

I can sit here and easily give plenty more praise on the technical elements of “Never Cry Wolf,” wonderfully directed by Carroll Ballard. It truly is that rich. But I will not because its magic should be experienced rather than be read about. Instead, I will say this:

I think it is exactly the movie that I needed to see because soon I will be going on my own foray into research. It moved me because it touches upon fear, the fear of the unknown. Like the protagonist, I will have to move to a new place, acclimatize to the climate and culture, and perhaps learn through trial-and-error first before hitting my stride. Though the film is not afraid to peek at dark corners, its message is largely hopeful: the pursuit of contributing to science can lead to personal growth and rewards that many will never get a chance to dream about let alone possess. It made me feel like I am ready.

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