If you release a film in theaters and nobody sees it, does it still exist? More importantly, should we even care?
Such are the questions brought up by “The Great Alaskan Race”.
If you have not heard of “The Great Alaskan Race”, you are not alone. The film, which received a wide-ish release in 400 theaters last October, made a whopping $485,603. This may be more than you or I made last October, but let’s put this in perspective: Dividing the profit up amongst the theaters, we find that each theater only made $1,214 on this movie. Assuming a ticket price of $10, that’s 121 tickets sold per theater.
Those kind of ticket sales are not making Marvel or Lucasfilm quake in their boots, that’s for sure.
So what went wrong? Perhaps the problem was the title of the film, which sounds as exciting as warm milk laced with sleeping pills.
Maybe the problem was the cast. After all, the biggest star is the kid from “E.T.”, who is apparently still alive and still acting. (Good for you Henry Thomas!)
Maybe word got out that the film ends with a minute-long PowerPoint slideshow of old photographs complete with funky fading effects.
Whatever the reason, “The Great Alaskan Race” was a bomb. But here’s the thing: As one of the critics who actually bothered to watch this thing, I can report that it is, in fact, watchable. Not good, mind you- again, there is a literal PowerPoint slideshow- but this could have been worse.
“The Great Alaskan Race” tells the story of Leonhard Seppala and the famous serum run in which a group of brave mushers and sled dogs traveled over 700 miles to obtain a cure for the children of Nome, Alaska, who were suffering from a diphtheria outbreak. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably read my review of Disney’s “Togo”, which told pretty much the exact same story two months after “Great Alaskan Race” was released.
Comparisons to “Togo” are perhaps most instructive when noting how “Great Alaskan Race” director/writer/producer/actor Brian Presley deviates from the historical record. No, Sepphala did not marry an Inuit woman. No, his wife did not die tragically. And, no, Sepphala’s daughter did not contract diphtheria herself.
Which is to say that Presley plays fast and loose with the historical record and molds it into a standard hero’s journey. But the hero’s journey has been used to death because it works, and it works here too. “Togo” was more historically accurate, but Presley’s film, with all its historical fictions, manages to be slightly more compelling in places.
You can thank Presley’s tight storytelling for that. In just over 80 minutes, “Great Alaskan Race” moves along at a tight clip. If “Togo” was downright languid in places, “Great Alaskan Race” moves along briskly from the start.
Presley’s other wise move was developing his human side players- a glaring week spot in “Togo”. Solid character actors like Bruce Davison (as the alcoholic Governor of Alaska) and Treat Williams (as the doctor treating the diphtheria epidemic in Nome) show up and make their mark. This is Presley’s first film behind the camera, but he has clearly learned a key filmmaking rule already: “Keep your friends close and your character actors closer.”
This isn’t to say that “Great Alaskan Race” isn’t without its many deficiencies- most of them Presley’s. As an actor, he’s as compelling as a particularly handsome piece of cardboard. As a director, he often seems out of his depths.
As a writer, Presley makes the downright baffling decision to turn this into a Christian movie at the last minute. A note to future Christian film directors: If you’re going to retcon history to fit your worldview, you might not want to give your “Come to Jesus” moment to a man who literally owned a dog named Nigger.
“Togo” cinematographer Ericson Core filmed a “Fast and the Furious” movie and a “Point Break” remake. “Great Alaskan Race” cinematographer Mark David gifted us with such notable gems as “The Gift Horse”, “Road to Wherever” and my personal favorite “Starfucker”. I’ll let you decide who is more competent behind the camera.
Needless to say, “The Great Alaskan Race (rated PG for thematic material, brief bloody images, some language and smoking) could have been much better. But I also think it deserved better than its $485,000. For a first-time filmmaker, Presley gets a lot right out of the gate. Here’s hoping he’s given another chance to continue developing his skills.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.