Set in 1988, Ken Kwapis’ Big Miracle starts off with a basic premise (trapped whales), adds in a great deal of colorful characters all at each other’s throats, and tops it all off with the worst possible things happening at the worst possible moments. Here is a movie about rescuing animals that becomes far more political than one might expect, while also including real human beings for characters instead of genre archetypes.
We begin in the Arctic, shooting in the town of Barrow. Our lead is Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a likable man whom we first meet doing a news story on a Mexican restaurant. Way up in one of the northernmost cities in the world, it takes four plane rides to acquire an avocado. Adam’s sidekick is a young boy named Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a kid who isn’t too fond of his native heritage and traditions. Adam is planning on leaving the town before the week is up, but after being coerced into doing one more story, he soon discovers that whales have become trapped in the ice.
What is there to do? The natives have an idea: Harpoon the whales and eat them. Adam’s ex-girlfriend, a Greenpeace activist, hears about the story and flies up there — after berating Adam for not telling her himself, despite her orders to never call her for anything. “This is different,” she exclaims. There’s some tension between them, we learn, and instantly we know that they shouldn’t be together. She wants to figure out a way to save the whales, most notably by mobilizing the National Guard.
Soon enough, Adam’s story essentially goes viral (if such a thing could realistically happen in 1988). It plays on national television, and soon enough, every major network is sending reporters to cover the whale story. One of these reporters is Jill (Kristen Bell), whom Adam has had a crush on for some time. They hit it off after meeting, and spend a great deal of the film together, even though the character of Jill vanishes for a thirty minute stretch, eventually leading to her becoming unnecessary.
Meanwhile, the whale story has become a worldwide phenomenon. Everyone tunes into their television sets in order to bear witness to the events that are happening in northern Alaska. Even President Reagan gets involved at one point. The decision is made to haul an oil drill to break through the ice surrounding the whales so that they can swim to the sea. But currently, they’re trapped with only a patch of visible water to breathe out of, and it’s closing up fast.
Much of Big Miracle is concerned with keeping these whales alive. Taking place in a subzero climate makes it difficult to keep the ice from freezing, although various methods are tried. The whales’ condition eventually worsens, other things go wrong, and a lot of improvisation takes place. Some of the tactics work, while others fail. It’s surprising just how much tension can be generated when you put a few animals in a perilous situation, and Big Miracle milks that for all it’s worth.
Despite the ever-present whale situation whose news sweeps across nations, there is also a human element to this production. It’s refreshing to see your typical bad guys (the uncaring profit-driven oil driller, the Russians, and so on), put aside their differences in order to help these poor creatures. But they don’t do this by completely switching around their characters, either. The businessman still doesn’t like the Greenpeace activist, for example. Differences are put aside for these whales, but the whole situation doesn’t define, nor is it the sole motivating factor, for these people. They’re all very human characters, filled with flaws and strengths just like anyone watching the movie.
It’s difficult to set a movie in the arctic and not make it atmospheric, so it should come to no surprise that Big Miracle is just that. You feel cold while watching this film, even if it’s a little difficult to believe that the characters would be able to perform just fine in -50C weather without something to cover their faces. This is a movie that felt authentic and that everything that happened, no matter how crazy, really could (and did) take place. When you base your film on true events, this is important.
Part of what makes this film successful is the amazing job done with creating lifelike whales. While we rarely see the full creature (usually one will just come up for air and we’ll see its head for a couple of seconds), one could be mistaken for thinking that real whales were used. All three of them are given different bodies so that we can tell them apart, and they function well enough as their own characters.
Where Big Miracle falters is in its actors and in its story, although the latter is less of a fault and says more about a potential viewer than it does of the film. Firstly, the acting is all over the place, although it gets better as the film progresses. In the first half, most of the actors seemed to struggle with their delivery, and nobody was terribly convincing. As it progressed, the acting go better. Secondly, it would be nigh impossible to tell this story without it coming across as cheesy. If you can’t handle a cheesy story, then you’ll want to skip this movie. This is more of a way to narrow down a target audience than a real fault, but it bears mentioning.
When it comes right down to it, Big Miracle is an enjoyable movie. It manages to overcome spotty acting and a corny script to become a smart film with deep-enough characters and some tension thanks to everything that just has to go wrong at exactly the worst time it can. It’s worth watching if you don’t mind a corny story and can handle some poorly acted scenes, especially if you want to see some very lifelike whales and learn about the real story that took place in 1988.