According to the Internet Movie Database, one of the working titles for The Edge was Bookworm. Not very exciting, but it does sum up what is most interesting about the movie, namely the character Charles Morse, played superbly by Anthony Hopkins.
In some ways, Charles is similar to Stevens, the character Hopkins played in The Remains of The Day. Both have a quiet dignity; both are reserved, almost shy, on the surface, but each has a buried pathos that gives him resounding depth.
Charles is a millionaire taking a winter holiday with his wife and friends at a remote cabin in Alaska. His trophy wife Mickey (whom he actually loves) is here for another reason, too; she is the model for their photographer friend Bob (Alec Baldwin), who has also come along on the trip.
When it comes to his wife, Charles is jealous of everybody, and Bob is on the top of the list. Hopkins shows you that his character is jealous, but also, on top of the emotion, he shows you the intellectual man’s struggle to keep the emotion hidden. It is a superb and solid performance.
Charles’s special talent is that facts stick to his mind like Post-It® Notes. The cabin’s proprietor (L.Q. Jones, who is very good in a small role) tries to stump Charles with a question about Indian lore: he asks Charles what’s on the opposite side of a paddle that shows a panther. Charles knows that the counterpart is a rabbit sitting and smoking a pipe. He even knows that the rabbit is acting casually because the rabbit knows that it is smarter than the panther, and therefore has nothing to worry about.
The next day Charles and three friends set off in search of the proprietor’s Indian friend, who has the perfect face for Bob’s camera. They take the plane to the next lake North, but a flock of birds causes the plane to crash into the ice-cold water. Three survive the crash and realize that no rescue party will be coming, at least not very soon. If they are to survive the cold (and the bears), they will need to rely on their wits and their survival knowledge (i.e., on Charles).
Much has been said of their nemesis, a bear with a taste for human flesh. The bear was a convincing character, but he is not the only conflict these men face. Panic, wounds, cold, fear, hunger, jealousy, and greed all work against the survival of the men. None of the conflicts they face, with the possible exception of the bear, feels contrived or written. Each problem feels like a genuine obstacle to survival, and each brings new panic, new fear, and in Charles’ case, a new chance to test his mind.
I think one of the more interesting scenarios in fiction asks you how you would handle it if you were really put to the test. Some examples that come to my mind are Steven King’s The Stand in which 99% of the human population is wiped out. How would you handle being the last person alive in your town? Or James Clavell’s King Rat, in which POWs live in unbearable conditions of disease and starvation. Would you retreat into insanity or would you fight to survive?
The Edge, pits man against the Alaskan winter without the tools of civilization to help him survive. Would you panic or could you think your way out?
The scenario alone would make an interesting movie, but because the hero is a smart man instead of a strong man or a lucky man, the movie is even more interesting, more tangible, more approachable. The Edge is not a disaster movie like Dante’s Peak or Twister, where only luck or superheroism can overcome the awesome forces of nature. Instead, man overcomes nature calmly, slowly, and realistically. It doesn’t take a dashing young hero, it takes a calm, quiet, 50-year old man, who tries to teach his friends “what one man can do, another can do.”
There is something of a twist at the ending. In general, I don’t mind giving away endings — there’s usually enough ironic foreshadowing that knowing about the ending actually helps you appreciate the rest of the movie. But in this one, I was glad I had to guess, and so I won’t discuss the wonderful foreshadowing Tamahori and writer David Mamet put in the movie. But thinking back, there were scenes and lines early on that take on new significance knowing the outcome of the movie.
And after the plot twist, the movie continues on for a bit longer. When the survivors return home, they talk to the press, and what they say makes one of the best endings to a film I’ve ever seen. Think about the last line of the movie and all the meanings it can have — as intended, as it could be interpreted by the audience, and as interpreted by the press.
The Edge is really a very good movie, and it may make a few “10 best” lists, including this one. But I must fault it for a clumsy setup. The movie really gets interesting after the plane crash. It takes 20 to 30 minutes to get to that point, and that first setup is essential to the story. But it is clear that the beginning is a necessary evil that clashes with the tone of the rest of the film.
Still, I can’t think of any better way to introduce the necessary traits of the characters. And the characters and portrayals are what really sets this movie apart, so the fact that there are two disjointed acts doesn’t need to be a major criticism.
And if that’s all that’s wrong with a movie, you’ve got something worth seeing.