Film Review: Into the Grizzly Maze

A plea for wildlife conservation disguised as a horror movie, Inside the Grizzly Maze's every beat will be familiar to anyone old enough to remember (or curious enough to have rediscovered) the brief flurry of "nature fights back" horror films of the 70s.
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Rowley, Alaska is a quiet little town whose population skews heavily towards men and women who respect and appreciate the many wonders of nature, including the diverse wildlife that lives in the surrounding woods. Not only are the woods themselves protected from illegal logging, but so is the region's top-of-the-food-chain predator, the grizzly: Hunting is regulated and the bears' primary habitat—the so-called "maze" of the title (a term which will be familiar to anyone who saw Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, about bear whisperer Timothy Treadwell, who loved them not wisely but too well)—is a protected area.

But as surely as there are hunters looking to bag a big, bad bear, there are locals willing to help them do it, even if it means flouting the law. The law in this case being Beckett (Thomas Jane), the sheriff who not only hung up his hunting rifle when he married wildlife photographer Michelle (Piper Perabo), but is actively involved with conservation efforts that include tagging the local bear population with trackable collars and monitoring their numbers and activities. It's an open secret that opportunists like Sully (Scott Glenn) are surreptitiously leading poachers into the wild, but knowing it and catching them at it are two different matters, and guys like Sully know when to lie low—including Sully's competitor Johnny Cadillac (Adam Beach), who's wisely decided to stay out of sight for a while.

Into this tense situation walks Beckett's estranged brother, Rowan (James Marsden), fresh out of jail and on an emotional journey. He intends to spend a couple of days camping in the Maze as a sort of tribute to their late father, who instilled in both boys a powerful respect for the natural world and its power to heal wounded hearts and minds. Let's just say he doesn't have much time for meditation once the mangled bodies start turning up.

Previously called Red Machine (a term that pays homage of sorts to grizzlies' predatory efficiency), as well as Endangered and Grizzly—all less cumbersome than Into the Grizzly Maze, which is presumably intended to echo Into the Wild, another cautionary Alaskan tale—this film's intentions are nothing but laudable. Grizzly bears are a threatened species. Rogue hunting—especially killing female bears with cubs—is a bad thing. People—especially siblings—should try to see things through each other's eyes. Ecosystems are systems and we disrupt them at our peril. Check, check, check and check.

And production designer-turned-director David Hackl (who also helmed Saw V) keeps the film moving. The trouble is that it lacks the go-for-the-gut sense of grizzlies as hairy great white sharks that could have made it into a landlocked Jaws. Which isn't to say that every pissed-off beast picture needs to be Jaws, only that Jaws nailed the formula and set up expectations that filmmakers ignore at their own risk.

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