Warning: Do not read this if you have not yet seen the movie. The ending is truly the most unexpected ending I have ever heard of, I would not want to ruin it for anyone.
Fish out of water. All over the place in this movie there are fish out of water: the salmon at the canary, the salmon making their run, Noelle's story of the water baby, the fish in the boat. There's even a scene where a fisherman gets a fish out of the water and shoots it, just as our "fish out of water" (Joe, Donna, and her daughter, Noelle) get shot at.
Of course, so many people are fish out of water here: Donna and Noelle, the lesbian hotel owners who don't know anything about fishing, ... really everyone not born in Alaska is pretty much considered one, especially the tourists. Most of them arrive by cruise ship which is their "water" ("we like to think of ship as your home" the ship operator tells the singer). The idea floated by the tourism baron of a real, but controlled, wild-Alaska experience for these people would be laughable if it wasn't so frightening. Even he's a fish out of water, having no idea how wrong his vision is.
Clearly this movie must be about Alaska itself. The introductory cheesy tourist movie about the state makes no sense unless we take that view of the larger picture. So too the presence of figures from the timber and tourism industries who discuss plans about where to clear-cut so it won't ruin the view. Perhaps the message is that we are all fish out of water in this huge land. Certainly once our trio get trapped on an island in the middle on nowhere, all of their skills will mean nothing once winter sets it.
If we look to what these three represent, my only guess is past (Joe), present (Donna) and future (Noelle). Joe's upbringing at least prepares him for living in Alaska. He can build traps and signal fires and so on because his father (truly an old timer) taught him. He also reflects lost potential and lost opportunities in his injury-shortened basketball carrier, and later when he gave up fishing after his boat sank. Is this paralleled by our lost chances with Alaska? That Alaska could have been something special if only things had turned out differently?
Donna is the present, a person who just happened to come to Alaska on her wanderings (30 states and Puerto Rice I believe). A lack of direction. Getting involved with the wrong guys, moving in with them, breaking up with then at someone else's wedding, moving out. A pattern that is not getting her anywhere except a little older, a little more used up. Why does she continue? Because once a night she connects to a song in a way that makes it all worth it. Again, all of these things seem to reflect the vision of the state as reflected in the movie. Large businesses closing create uncertainty about the future. What will the clear-cutting bring? What will increased tourism bring? Even the salmon run in uncertain - some years good, some years nothing. Even one of their own, returning from the lower 48, in the person of Joe's half brother Bobby brings trouble with them. So why does everyone stay? I suspect it's because, just like our singer, every once in a while, maybe every day, they get to see something or experience something they couldn't anywhere else.
Of course Nolle's youth marks as the obvious candidate for the future. She is the fish most out of water of these three - the real outsider. We see her in her school not fitting in. She scars herself just to feel something. She could be terminal patient when she gets sick on the island. Even her relationship with her mother and Joe reflects her role. She is frustrated by her mother's (the present) inability to provide stability, and both she and her mother love the past, but the past is too far gone to ever be recaptured, so her crush on Joe can simply never be fulfilled. Just as we would love to recapture what Alaska was, to do it all over again, but right this time, but we simple cannot turn back time.
What is remarkable about this movie is that sets up a believable situation (although it is, admittedly, a little contrived) with two opposite outcomes, each of which is equally possible and neither of which is completely fulfilling. We don't know much about Kris Kristofferson's character, Smilin' Jack, so we don't really know what he will do. Although he comes out of the past (it seems) as much as Joe's father, he remains apart from the other characters at the bar. When the parade of tourists come through the bar, we suddenly see these characters as museum figures, frozen in time, collecting dust. Even Bobby comments that they haven't moved since he left. But this other fellow doesn't seem to be like that. He doesn't have any dust on him. Besides Joe, he is the only one who makes a play on the singer. And we don't really know much about what he does. So we are left with little information and can only speculate. Is he just a decent person, or is money all he cares about? How much does his friendship with Bobby mean to him? How much of a grudge does he hold against Joe for the death of his own brother? We simply don't know.
And how about us. Are we decent people who will do the right thing, or is money more important to us? Does our love of the land outweigh our fear of it? What is the future of Alaska, of all our wild, special places? We don't know. So the movie takes the only way out, the best way out, and doesn't tell us what the end will be. Do our heroes get rescued, or do they get murdered? Who is in the plane? In some way the answers are up to us. We can debate Jack's character and speculate as what he would do. But the truth this there is no answer. If the movie ended with our heroes being rescued, we'd feel the ending was cheap and too easy, too simple. If they are killed, all of the energy we've invested in slowly getting to know these people seems wasted - we would feel cheated by the film. So instead we are left in limbo, as are our three figures, as is Alaska's future, as is the future for all of us.
The future is ours to make, just as the diary the daughter found had no ending until she made one. Of course her additions to the diary also had no ending, and then her own story had no ending in the film. So we become the story tellers finishing the tale.