I've read a lot of professional and amateur reviews for this film, and about half begin with, "This film is just about some spoiled brat with high hopes and no brains!" And I would say "Yes, it is, BUT...", because by the end the main character completes a 'character arc'.
You have to remember that Chris McCandless was young and motivated by the idea that rejecting the materialistic ideology of the Western society he was raised in, his parents overbearing superficialness and unhappy domestic history would attain freedom. This motivated him to go and find freedom in the wild, specifically, Alaska. However, before he gets to Alaska he hitchhikes for two years and meets a series of influential characters. A lot of the time these characters provide comic relief, but when Chris leaves them after forming an emotional bond, you realise that he isn't a great person and that these characters serve to indicate this selfish aspect of Chris' character. But that's okay - you don't have to like Chris! But that said, Chris is hard not to like; when you strip away all his selfish actions you get a handsome and charming man.
However, you have to accept as a viewer that Chris was real, and all *real* people are flawed. He does selfish things, he hurts people and people hurt him. That is life. But he is not all bad, none of us are! If you look for the good you will find it - sometimes he's quite a decent guy.
Sean Penn has structured the film in several chapters that ascend like this, "Birth", "Manhood" etc. I'm not sure if I liked this aspect of the film. On one hand, it gives Chris' journey another dimension i.e. His journey encapsulates the journey we all go through in our lives. But sometimes I thought it was a little too ambitious to apply that to one man's idealistic and eventually fatal adventure. I also hated how the main title "Into The Wild" morphed from cool yellow handwriting into ugly green block letters - perhaps it was meant to symbolise the rejection of aesthetic comforts? But some aspects of the film I did really like, such as the sensitive and touching voice-over of Chris' sister during the film. In that way, there are three narratives running simultaneously through the film: Chris' family (represented by his sister's voice-over and flashbacks), Chris' hitchhiking adventures (used to show aspects of his character), and Chris in Alaska (the real trial of his adventure, providing many climaxes in the movie, and the final stage of his character arc). This structure is very sophisticated I think (opposed to some reviewers who call the film 'confused' and 'jumbled'), and really draws us deeper into the film.
While some people can't be drawn in by how repulsed they are by this rich kid's selfishness and typical anti-society 'tude, the ending serves to change your mind. Chris goes out there to get freedom, because he thinks:
Freedom = Happiness
However, he realises that happiness must be shared for it to mean anything. He also discards the immature alias he gave himself when he was still an ideologically motivated idiot - Alexander Supertramp - and realises everything must be called by its right name, and accepts himself for who he is - Chris McCandless. In the end, this film evolves into a touching coming-of-age story, having been a riveting adventure story, road movie and family drama.
Now for technical aspects of the film (it deserves at least five stars for this alone!) - beautiful cinematography; the shots of Alaska are incredible. The acting - Emile Hirsh is absolutely perfect. There are no Oscar moments; the performance as a whole is complete, perfect and understated. Some of his improvisations are hilarious. The supporting actors are all brilliant, especially Hal Holbrook as Mr. Franz and Kristen Stewart as the young, horny singer Tracy. Chris' partings with Hal Holbrook and Tracy are the most heart-wrenching. Chris rejects a flourishing romantic relationship for his freedom. This makes his realisation that he needs to share it even sadder.
My final opinion on the film is that it is well-made, and deserves to be respected, just for all the hard work that has gone into it. Hirsch's dedication to the role and Penn's dedication and sensitivity to the story and Chris' memory. There's only three things left that concern me:
1) The representation of Chris as a hero/Jesus. There were moments when I thought Penn was casting Chris as too much of a heroic figure, when we have to remind ourselves that he wasn't - he was young, motivated and ill-prepared. As much as it pains me to say this insensitive-sounding statement, I have to: his death does not make him a hero. If he had come back alive, would there be a film? I worry about these things. What if the river had NOT become so wide and Chris had been able to return? What if Chris had come back and integrated into society? Would there be a film?
2) His family's involvement in the making of the film - how much power did they have? Have they changed representations of themselves? How objective is this film? Objectivity can never be achieved, but I worry if the family made themselves look better for the film. I think the character arc I see concerning Chris' parents is very likely to have really occurred, but how do I know for sure? I don't know.
3) Hypocrisy? Is Chris a hypocrite for living in an abandoned bus in Alaska? No, because it wasn't his goal to abandon modern technology, it was his goal to abandon the restrictions of a superficial society, such as having a definite identity and set future.
P.S. I haven't read the book; I'm judging the film on its own merits.