Into the wilds

Killer-nature flick The Canyon advocates staycations
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arts@sfbg.com
One painful component of the ever-escautf8g government service cutbacks, particularly in our own endlessly explorable state, has been the threat to parkland access. The notion that the national park system Wallace Stegner (and Ken Burns' current PBS documentary series) called America's "best idea" might someday be sold to the highest bidder seems blasphemous — unless, of course, you've never been (like most of the nation's vacation-hobbled poor) or are in a position to make that buck.

Unintentionally assuaging that unfortunate final-future despoiling is new indie quasi-horror The Canyon, which asks the unmusical question: why, stupid humankind, did you ever think you belonged in wild country? "We don't belong here," its hero realizes when camping misadventures have gone from rad to worse. Yeah, people should never intermingle with nature. That's why we are born from robots, plastic afterbirth spilling into a soft cushion of Styrofoam curls then recycled into spin-off products for the Transformers films. "Soylent Green is PEEEEOPLE!!!" Actually that has no relevance here. Just thought I'd drop it in.

A first feature for director Richard Harrah and writer Steve Allrich, The Canyon falls firmly within that vacation-from-hell subgenre recently capped by the very clever, funny, and fairly freaky A Perfect Getaway. (None of which adjectives apply here, alas.) Other examples of late include the supernatural off-trail hazards of 2008's The Ruins, several organ-harvesting horrors (2006's Turistas), and numerous more films suggesting it's best to stay the fuck home — this being a movie world, psychos and predators are everywhere.

The Canyon sports minor novelty in sticking to mainland U.S.A. terra firma, albeit a world-famous landmark — if a 227-mile long, 5.4-million-year-old, mile-deep gorge can be considered mere "landmark." Introduced in blandly nice/cute terms they never really recover from, swarthy Nick (Eion Bailey from HBO's Band of Brothers) and perky blonde Lori (Yvonne Strahovski from NBC's Chuck) are eloped newlyweds anticipating a mule-ride down to the Grand Canyon's bottom that she's not too keen on. She's even less keen once it turns out Nick didn't get the necessarily permits and their only option is signing on with "guide extraordinaire" Henry (Will Patton), whom they meet at a local bar and who doesn't look so much a friend of nature as somebody freshly rolled in its excrement.

Nick's enthusiasm wins out, though. It's not spoiling too much to reveal that traveling with a slightly creepy guide fast proves better than having none at all, as one nasty incident leaves the trio sans mules, food, water, and worse. Things devolve from there, as our ill-skilled, mapless protagonists find themselves increasingly pressed for survival strategies. Stress (let alone inevitable stress-induced bickering) doesn't reveal anything more interesting about our dull protagonists. But the eventual vigor with which body parts suffer and wild wolves inflict injury does juice this empty Canyon up, unpleasantly if more memorably. Do they deserve it?

Straining, the filmmakers suggest so. "You screw with Mother Nature, she's gonna find a way to screw ya right back," Henry portentously intones — the message being that city folk have no business in the all-outdoors. Baby, please: the Sierra Club knows we get along just fine on those trails, leaving no carbon footprint besides.

THE CANYON opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.

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