The Last Winter, a 2006 film by Larry Fessenden, offers a provocative spin on the “revenge of nature” sub-genre of horror. The monster is . . .oil? Well, maybe.
At a base in the “untapped” Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska, a group of environmentalists and oil company workers are mapping the region for locations for drill sites and access roads. Strange things start happening, though, and it’s precisely in the very strangeness of its events that The Last Winter gains much of its compelling force.
In its harsh, ice-bound setting and its closed, isolated community, The Last Winter inevitably calls to mind John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), but its principal difference from The Thing is The Last Winter’s greatest strength. In Carpenter’s film, it’s never in doubt what is threatening the men: they may not be sure where the alien is hiding, whose body it has assimilated, but MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his co-workers know that they’re dealing with an alien being. It seems to have come to earth unprompted, moreover, and the men at the research station bear no culpability for its arrival.
In The Last Winter, however, as people start engaging in disturbing self-destructive behavior, as they start dying, the reason for their deaths remains uncertain. Insanity and hallucinations are both hinted at. And there is, toward the end, a glimpse of a supernatural entity (a wendigo?) that may be real—or that may be just one more collective delusion. Whether it is “real” or a delusion, though, it seems somehow conjured up by us—by humans. And so the men and women at this camp are implicated in the arrival of what seeks their destruction.
The most intriguing possibility insinuated by the film is that the melting of the Alaskan permafrost due to global warming is releasing gases trapped beneath the earth for tens of thousands of years. These gases, the film suggests, are poisoning the would-be exploiters of the Alaskan land, causing them to act irrationally and self-destructively: it is, literally, oil’s revenge. As the environmentalist, Hoffman, explains:
Something is being unleashed by the softening permafrost. . . .Why wouldn’t the wilderness fight us, like any organism would fight off a virus? . . . Is there something beyond science that is happening here? What if the very thing that we’re here to pull out of the ground were to rise willingly and confront us? What would that look like? This is the last winter. Total collapse.
With its array of concepts drawn from science—permafrost and global warming—The Last Winter does also go “beyond science.” Indeed, the first character to go “mad,” Maxwell (Zach Gilford), offers a striking view of what’s happening to them that moves a fair way “beyond science” toward the supernatural. He claims that what is coming out of the ground is the “ghost” of fossil fuels, “like a force, fighting back.” “What is oil anyway,” he asks, “but fossils—plants and animals from, whatever, millions of years ago.” Since oil is organic, can’t it produce “ghosts”?
A scene a few minutes before this exchange gives us a glimpse of a bookcase that bolsters Maxwell’s theory before we even hear it. It prominently features Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, along with books entitled Fossils and Minerals (Fig. 2).
This shot grounds Maxwell’s hypothesis that oil has a life (and even an afterlife) of its own—that it has an evolutionary course that is not demonstrably different from human life. Humans are bound to the inanimate in this formulation, a reminder that even fossils and (some) minerals could arguably be said to be on the continuum of organic life. The title of Darwin’s book in this particular context even challenges us to ponder which “species” we’re thinking about here, and suggests that humans (their decomposing bodies) may be one of the “origins” of oil: we are, after all, part of the plant and animal life that Maxwell claims created oil in the first place. And humans may well, The Last Winter suggests, both be undone by that oil and end up (again) as oil. Oil’s evolutionary triumph, perhaps? Certainly oil’s revenge.