When he was a boy, Charlie Fox (River Phoenix) always looked up to his father, and why not? The man was a genius, after all. Yet not everyone could take the agile mind of Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), because it came in a package of overbearing arrogance and utter disdain for those who did not see the world his way. He was an inventor and his latest device created ice from fire, something he demonstrated with his prototype machine to his boss, who only wanted his asparagus refrigerated and was not prepared to fund this new endeavour. It was the final straw for Allie - the obviously doomed America was finished for him...
Trust screenwriter Paul Schrader to bring out the religious angle in this modern day survivalist tale, drawn from Paul Theroux's novel of the same name. And trust director Peter Weir to bring out the terrible beauty and uncomprehending power of nature in it, too: with these two forces going against the anti-hero Allie he undoubtedly had his work cut out for him. But neither of the filmmakers seemed sure if their lead character was a noble pioneer or a reckless monster as he plunged his family into South American jungles in search of an improvement on life in the United States.
With the normally straightforwardly admirable Ford in the role, not many took to him playing a man with dangerous flaws at the time this was released, and this was no conventional adventure that audiences were used to seeing him take part in. In spite of its failure the star cites it as his favourite role, and although there are still those who say he was miscast, it was extremely interesting to see an actor who normally coasts on his laid back celebrity charm actually being stretched, as has happened too infrequently in Ford's career. The jury is still out on whether he proved himself depending on who you believe, but for his casting alone it's a captivating choice.
So what if Ford's Allie seems always on the verge of breaking out into the wry sarcasm, the dark side of the performer's sometimes underused wit, this is one of the world's all-time biggest movie stars being taken down here, which must count for something. On the ship over to their destination, the only other white family the Foxes meet is a missionary, Reverend Spellgood (Andre Gregory), and his wife and kids, who is as concerned with bringing God to the locals as Allie is with bringing ice to them. Allie rejects Spellgood's simpering piety, and it's amusing to see the sanctimonious minister meet his match, until you realise that this story has him on the right side.
Really Charlie is the victim of disillusionment with his father in the same way that Allie grew disillusioned with America, and although there's a bit of narration at the end that has some sympathy with his parent's downfall, we can see Charlie has been taught a harsh lesson that Allie was never going to accept, that total self-suffiency is not a viable way to exist. No matter how independent you think you are, you are always going to need someone else to help you eventually, so when the huge icemaker is built in the jungle village and it all looks to be going well, Allie's pride doesn't allow him to see where he has gone wrong and only comes up with solutions that are far too damaging. This religious aspect returns again and again, as if Allie is being punished for rejecting the Almighty, so when the end comes it comes with Biblical lessons for all the characters: He is in charge. Maybe this vision of a callous and vengeful deity was what turned off audiences in the first place rather than Ford's casting. Music by Maurice Jarre.