Originally titled Red Machine. Also called “Jaws but for bears” in a few reviews, but I feel that simplifies things a little too much. The plot is, quite literally, “Jaws but for bears”, but films – horror and otherwise – are always more than just their plot descriptions. Into The Grizzly Maze concerns two brothers, their respective love interests, and a grumpy and possibly psychotic hunter wandering around the Alaskan forest in search of a rogue, homicidal bear. The group is stuck – some of them willingly and others less so – in a section of the forest called the Grizzly Maze because “even grizzlies can get lost down there.” Though most of the characters are experienced hunters, the grizzly proves to be more cunning, ruthless, and perhaps a little smarter than the humans chasing it at every turn.
To be clear, there is nothing supernatural in this film. The grizzly – listed as Red Machine in the credits but not named in the film – has adapted out of sheer necessity as a vanishing habitat means fewer and fewer meal opportunities – and boy, when you get hungry enough, those loggers look just like Happy Meals on legs…
The film doesn’t really explain why the grizzly doesn’t just terrorize the local dump, as most Alaskan bears will do, instead of going after food with the annoying habits of A) running away and B) packing guns. But then we wouldn’t have a story.
This isn’t to belittle the impressive achievements of this film; rather the contrary. Grizzly Maze does something that very few animal-as-villain movies actually manage: it makes a trained animal look terrifying on screen.
See, there’s a limit to how convincingly scary you can make an animal look on film, while at the same time keeping things safe enough to actually, you know, film a scene with human actors and a live grizzly in the same room. The amount to which these films succeed is dependent almost entirely on their editing team, and the discretion of the camera-person. No matter how much sound editing you apply, a happy animal isn’t going to look like anything but a happy animal on screen. This is a problem a lot of horror films have to deal with. Cujo in particular struggled with this – they tried nearly everything to make a St. Bernard look scary, and possibly invented some new swear words in the process.
With that in mind, Grizzly Maze is excellent. It chooses careful shots of the bear and keeps the animal out of sight for the majority of the film, leaving the audience to listen to the grunting and growling. Like with Jaws, the audience fills in the blanks for what they can’t clearly see.
Bart the Bear does excellent work as the villain, alongside his human costars. Piper Perabo stole more than a few scenes with her portrayal of the deaf Michelle, which makes me regret that the film chose not to make her a more central character. Billy Bob Thorton hammed it up as Douglass, a bear hunter with more than a few issues, and James Marsden and Thomas Jane gave a convincing portrayal of estranged brothers. However, the characters toss around grand speeches about the nature of evil, hunting, and preservationists without really coming to any conclusions about any of the above, and the only real character development could have happened at the beginning – if the two brothers weren’t such fans of avoiding meaningful conversation. As much as I liked Michelle’s character and applaud a decent portrayal of a disabled character on screen, her role is consistently the damsel in distress. We’re told repeatedly that she changed her husband for the better, but don’t see which parts of her character actually prompted this change, or even what she wants from life. The other love interest, Kaley, is there simply to be rescued and then reunited with her childhood sweetheart. She has no character arc whatsoever.
The scenery is beautiful, though fails to give an accurate sense of the scale that the story is dealing with. If the Grizzly Maze is so dense and difficult that only the locals can safely navigate it, then why does the forest look like your average national park, or that thicket next to the train tracks by my house. There’s a beautiful scene towards the end where the characters are being stalked in a thick fog, surrounded by dark trees, that truly conveys the isolation and beauty of the place they are stuck in. The problem is, that’s one scene among hundreds, and the entire film should have looked like that.
Though the characters talk a big game about the nature of evil and the ethics of poaching, a lot of the nuance is lost in process. None of the characters have those small, human issues that make them relateable, and the film doesn’t go into why so many of the characters might turn a blind eye to poaching and extreme logging. It’s clear in the subtext that all of the locals are dealing with the threat of poverty and are resorting to measures that go against their beliefs, but Grizzly Maze doesn’t do more than graze the surface of that.
In short, Grizzly Maze is a decent monster movie about a giant bear that hasn’t quite managed to make its characters human-sized. Go see it.