Alaska in Movies: 5 Films To Get You Interested in the State

Big Miracle
Big Miracle (2012), one of many flops filmed in Alaska

There are many things people think of when they hear the word ‘Alaska’. ‘The Last Frontier is heaven and hell all in one. A mecca for all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts and adventurous souls, it’s one of the most dangerous and desolate places on earth. Despite the small population of ‘real’ Alaskans and the fact that obviously, skiing and that bear in the back yard distract from high-brow culture, it’s still a surprise that Alaska has produced very few high quality motion pictures so far. Granted, there is a decent amount of movies produced/ filmed/ set in Alaska, but to be frank: most of them range somewhere between trash and mediocrity.

Every now and then, a film team will set out for the great wilderness of one of Alaska’s bigger towns – they have about three to choose from – and put all their hopes and efforts into a new project. Like the biggest chunk of films produced in the Dream Factory in L.A., most of these movies don’t work out. Most recently, Drew Barrymore’s tear-jerker Big Miracle and the well-cast The Frozen Ground, a gritty portrait of an Alaskan serial killer, flopped devastatingly. Both were filmed on location in Anchorage and based on true stories, but it seems that this kind of authenticity is not necessarily what people want from movies, or at least it’s not enough.

The question is, how does the average movie buff, who is interested in finding out more about Alaska, choose which films to watch? When it comes to the 49th state, there is a giant river of films to choose from, but like in the days of the real gold rush, it’s hard to make out the things that’ll make you rich from the muddy pile of stones. This list is an attempt at gathering the most inspiring, original cinematic gems connected with Alaska.

5. The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush (1925)Ranking among Charles Chaplin’s most popular feature films, The Gold Rush is, like many of Chaplin’s work, a light-hearted take on a serious topic. Going back to the early years in American Alaskan history, a short time after the vast amount of land was purchased from the Russians, the film explores the harsh lives of the Americans that set out to dig for Alaskan gold. The film bears similarities to The Immigrant or Modern Times, in that it focusses on a ground-breaking time period of American history.

Much like the European immigrants and the first factory workers in the mentioned two films, the men that went to Alaska during the gold rush were mostly desperate. In The Gold Rush, Chaplin’s character, going by the subtle name of ‘The Lone Prospector’, is a representation, an incarnation, of these men. Many of whom didn’t make it far and either went back to their normal lives or died trying to get rich.

The Gold Rush is not a bleak film despite the heavy themes – Chaplin would wait many years before allowing darker aspects to slip into his work. As expected from a silent comedy, there are a lot of physical jokes involving well-choreographed acrobatics, many of which are so universally amusing that they evoke a chuckle even in today’s situational comedy accustomed audience. Surprisingly often, there is an element of genuine amazement to the film, when one starts to consider the danger and cost of some of the stunts. The fact that parts The Gold Rush were actually filmed on location in real – if not Alaskan – snow, only adds to this feeling.

4. Alone in the Wilderness (2004)

Alone in the WildernessOne of the names travelers will hear often when visiting Alaska is that of Dick Proenneke. The Handyman with a capital H left his home after retiring, built a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and continued to live there for 35 years. What makes his adventure stand out from others is that he filmed himself for much of the time he spent setting up his home in the wilderness and living there. The resulting material was published in 2004 under the title Alone in the Wilderness, so audiences all over the world could experience one of the most talented craftsmen the world has seen work his magic.

The premise of Alone in the Wilderness is so simple it almost hurts: you watch the most basic events of human life unfold; a cabin is built, food is provided, food stores are built. Due to obvious logistic reasons, the film material is mostly still frames or slow pans. However, Dick Proennecke, aside from his superhuman powers to build, also had an eye for pictures and art, as becomes obvious when considering the beauty of the simple shots, the exquisite choice of colours and composition. Narrated by the soothing voice of one Bob Swerer Jr., the 57 min. short documentary flies by like an Alaskan summer. Seldom has human nesting instinct been captured more accurately, especially since the film lacks the display of other instincts such as family and sex. Alone in the Wilderness is a peak through the keyhole into a life that few people dream of and even fewer choose to live.

3. Insomnia (1997)

Insomnia StillSomewhat tragically re-gaining recognition due to the recent loss of actor Robin Williams, Insomnia is one of Christopher Nolan’s earlier and less hyped movies. The crime thriller is a well-written and mysterious depiction of the gray-scaled human nature and leaves little to no room for heroism. Starting out as your everyday serial killer story involving a troubled police investigator, the story morphs into a highly psychological maze surrounded by brilliant dialogues between suspect Robin Williams and detective Al Pacino.

An exceptionally glamorous entry in the hall of fame of Alaskan cinema, Insomnia surely dwells on the dark sides of the state and its inhabitants. Set in summer, when the sun never sets in many Alaskan towns, the film certainly strives to fulfill the audience’s longing for exoticism and otherness. Sunny yet lonely nights without sleep are followed up by dangerous chases on foggy beaches or trunk factories, artfully framed in high quality. Without doubt, Insomnia is an outsider’s view and experience of the odd Alaskan summer. However, its tight pacing and hypnotizing quality make it one of the most original examples of film making in and about Alaska that is sure to keep you on the edge of your sledge.

2. Grizzly Man (2004)

Grizzly Man stillLike Alone in the WildernessGrizzly Man is a documentary filmed by a maverick and put together by a filmmaker. This is pretty much where the similarities end though. Where the former film is a quiet documentation of the beautiful every day life of a lonesome handyman, Grizzly Man is an attempt at deciphering a much more complex and troubled psyche – that of Timothy Treadwell. Self-proclaimed “gentle warrior” and saviour of the bears (from non-existent poachers), Treadwell spent 13 summers in Alaskan state parks, “looking over” the bears. The last summer, he and his girlfriend Amy Huguenard were attacked and killed by a grizzly.

The documentary, assembled and partly filmed by the former wild child of the German film industry that’s Werner Herzog, is an interesting puzzle of confusing points-of-view. Only in the last third do the crooked paths of the statements from a mixture of friends, experts and so on form a kind of direction.

One of the most stunning documentaries about Alaska, Grizzly Man is less about the state itself than it is about a ruptured person and his quest for sanity and happiness. The gorgeous shots of stingingly green plants, heavenly glittering lakes and the delicious orange hues of the Alaskan fall are always “just” a background for the psychological battle that the camera is focussing on. There is a duality to all things depicted; what the audience sees – what Timothy Treadwell saw. A fox – a fugitive. A bear – a friend. Alaska – heaven and hell.

1. Into the Wild (2007)

Into the Wild Based on the non-fiction book by John Krakauer, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild has become a highly acclaimed and, for many, the film about traveling. It is the ultimate dropout story of the ultimate backpacker – Christopher McCandless, who literally left “everything” behind after graduating from university and traveled through most of the USA on his quest to reach Alaska. Scored by the raw, nasal voice of Eddie Vedder and filmed all over the country, the film provokes the audience to question everything from The System to society to interpersonal relationships. It’s a vessel for people enter and perhaps look at their lives and goals from another perspective afterwards. What happens in Into the Wild doesn’t ever just stay in Into the Wild.

The film has a strong lead in Emile Hirsch, although his performance has not seemed to gain him many big roles afterwards. Likewise, actors like Vince Vaughn and Zack Galifianakis step out of their comedic comfort zone and dominate the screen as interesting and well-written side characters. It should be noted that Into the Wild is also known as the film even Kristen Stewart haters enjoyed. Although only a little part of the film is actually set in Alaska, the idea of the Last Frontier shines through the scenes. It’s the promised land waiting after a long and tiring journey – a dangerous thing, better than paradise. It’s the place where Christopher hopes to find a sense in life and humanity.

While the dream of leaving everything may burn less vigorously in most of us than it did in Christopher McCandless, stepping outside the boundaries of the norm and society is a common wish for many people and Into the Wild lets them embrace this wish. It’s as if Alaska is one of the few places where it’s still possible to live this dream, to be wild and free for once. And when Christopher roams the Alaskan snow in original XtraTufs, he is truly living that dream – and so is the audience.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I’m going to go with “The Thing” with Kurt Russell. It was from the early 80’s…still one of my favorite horror movies. Best movie ever.

    • Big fan of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Seen it several times. The original (from back in the 50s) was set up in Alaska. I’ve only seen that one once. 30 Days of Night is a great one, too.

  2. Alaina Mejia

    Lovely article. My choice of viewing is Runaway Train. It didn’t take place there, but most of it was shot on the Alaska Railroad.

  3. Wow great list. I like:
    Ice Palace (1960)
    Mystery, Alaska (1999)
    To Brave Alaska (1996)

  4. Into the wild was VERY disappointing to me. Only a precious few scenes were even in Alaska. I hated it.

  5. sculltrapper

    A lot of movies that say they’re in “X” location are rarely filmed in that location. It’s kind of like the show The Killing, which supposedly takes place in Seattle. Being from there originally, you know right away it’s not filmed there. But that’s ok b/c I like it for other reasons. I’m sure Alaska has been “mis” represented more often than not, but hey, I’d still visit in a heartbeat!!

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      That is a problem, I agree. The films and shows might as well be set somewhere else if they can’t film there. However, when it comes to Alaska I understand why studios find it too costly to actually shoot there.

  6. While not a film, and though it was never filmed in beautiful Alaska, I would cast a vote for the TV series “Northern Exposure”. Not only did it have some of the best writing and acting in television history, anybody who has spent a decade or so in real Alaska can probably list a few towns that resemble the fictional Cicely.

  7. Really cool article! I’ve only heard of Into the Wild and Gold Rush. I have a particular interest in Insomnia. Well done!

  8. Elia Pitts

    I thought Mystery, Alaska was a funny, quirky movie that was enjoyable.

  9. Malcolm

    The other top film forgotten to be worth mentioning made in Alaska was Steven sea gal’s ‘ On Deadly Ground “.

  10. “North to Alaska” should be here.

  11. Antonio

    Random… but what about The Simpsons Movie? 🙂

  12. Am I the only one who found Grizzly Man a hard watch at times? When you learn the details of how he and the girl died, and how the man was clearly troubled, I became very aware that I was watching very personal videos of a man unravelling before me. Possibly a man with a death wish. Not a movie. Not a character. A real person. Alot of the videos I’m sure he had no intention of ever being seen by the public. Who exactly gave the filmmakers permission for this?

    I mean, it’s a great film. But it’s clearly more about this man on a personal level, than the bears. I doubt that’s what Timothy wanted to show with the footage he shot. It seems a little disrepectful and exploitative.

    • I’m watching it at the moment — checking it out because it was made by Werner Herzog — and yes, it’s a bloody tough watch.

      From the opening scene, when I didn’t yet know how this was going to end, I found myself thinking “I can’t watch this”, because the guy was clearly fantasy-prone, narcissistic and histrionic. I’ve just reached the scene where he’s giving himself credit for having summoned the rainstorm, and I’m finding it really disturbing to watch. The guy’s delusional on a major scale.

      • Mette Marie Kowalski

        It is a hard watch but it’s such an intense and hypnotizing movie that I found myself liking it a lot. However, I understand that this is not everyone else’s definition of a ‘good’ movie.
        I don’t think the makers exploited Treadwell though, Herzog clearly started out neutrally and let the audience form their own opinion.

    • Yes, tough, and I would not look at it again.

      I imagine that his parents must have had posession of the footage and gave permission although I doubt they realized how it would be used and the impression viewers got of their son. Perhaps if he had lived, he would have edited it all into a documentary.

  13. I am really happy this article was written. It provided a unique insight into a question not many people have asked. Really, “Why not Alaska?” I found it interesting also that the movies you provided in the list were either documentaries, based on true events, or holding a firm grasp on the true nature of the state. I added a few of these into my watch list. Thanks for the article.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I’m very happy you liked the article. Yes, it’s very interesting to see that most good Alaskan films are of that nature. I’ve seen ones that were less realistic in this way and just didn’t find myself enjoying them.

  14. Danny Cox

    Nice job, this is a really great topic and a solid list. I would add the movie “The Edge,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, to this list as well. For those loving the survivalist story and Anthony Hopkins, “The Edge” is a must-see.

  15. Mary Awad

    Grizzly Man is a ridiculously awesome movie. That man had many problems but was able to transport all of that and go be with the bears. Many argue he is crazy but he was just misunderstood and those bears were the only things that understood him. His death was a shame.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I’m not sure the bears ‘understood’ him but I do agree that this was the only place Treadwell could be himself and be happy (judging from the movie).

  16. Tyler Edwards

    So glad Insomnia got a mention, so underrated!

  17. Into the wild is my favorite film. The narration is one of the best narration among movies I watched. Calm and beautifully explained.

  18. Amena Banu

    I really love this topic; it’s unique and unfamiliar to me. This piece made me want to check out some of these films. Well done!

  19. Brilliant list, good mix of entires from varying genres and filmmakers. Both in real-life and fiction, Alaska marks a fantasy-esque world in which civilisation can’t seem to take over. In that sense, movies like Insomnia and Into the Wild are more interesting.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Well said. It is definitely one of the reasons why films set in Alaska are so interesting, and maybe it’s also the reason why it’s hard to find good ones. Perhaps it’s not easy to capture that fantastic edge to the state.

  20. If anyone is looking for an inspiring and emotional tale, Into The Wild is it! I love Alaska.

  21. Alice Bishop

    Great picks. Alone in the Wilderness is going straight onto my watchlist 🙂

  22. Anh Bruton

    Northern Exposure, beloved television series about a naive young doctor. Totally worth the watch.

  23. Liz Kellam

    I knew little about Alaska until I watched Insomnia. I never know about the long periods of day and night that can occur. 30 Days of Night also played on the same concept, though not entirely realistic.

  24. Renz Path

    I do agree with you that many things come to mind when thinking of the word ‘Alaska’ like skiing and that bear in the backyard. It is also true that many films were produced in Alaska and I think I’ve seen one that shows many skiing acts. Since I haven’t seen another movie like that, I will probably watch one that shows the great snowy mountain that I find beautiful.

  25. One of the less-regarded films based on Alaska was a Disney film with Cuba Gooding, Jr..

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