The movie is mostly set in the Antarctic, after an expedition with Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), the sled dog trainer Jerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) has to leave the polar base with his colleagues due to the proximity of a heavy snow storm. He ties his dogs to be rescued after, but the mission is called off and the dogs are left alone at their own fortune. For six months, Jerry tries to find a sponsor for a rescue mission while his dogs fight for survival.
Both this film and the 1983 Japanese film Antarctica were based on the same real-life events, with the main difference being that the 1983 film adapts the events directly while Eight Below does so more loosely.
Tropes present in this film include:
- The Baby of the Bunch: Max is the newest edition to the team, but Shepherd believes that he's got something special.
- Big Friendly Dog: Most of the canine cast, to varying degrees.
- Big Guy: Buck probably stands out as one of the biggest and strongest of the team, as he was the only dog who managed to break his chain rather than slipping out of his collar.
- Bittersweet Ending: Old Jack and Dewey die but the remaining six dogs live long enough to be rescued by Jerry Shepherd.
- Disney Death: Maya is thought to be dead during her reunion with Shepherd and Shadow. Luckily, it turns out she was just sleeping.
- Face Death with Dignity: Old Jack. While the others all have the strength to break free while chasing a flock of gulls, Jack is too old to follow and chooses to stay at the base and die in peace.
- Jump Scare: When Max investigates the carcass of a dead Orca, a leopard seal jumps right out of the body and into the camera's face. Not the most pleasant thing to see up close and personal.
- The Leader: Maya is initially established as the alpha of the sled team.
- Monstrous Seal: When Max is investigating a dead orca as potential food, a leopard seal lunges out of the carcass and chases him off. Max manages to lure it away by running off with a piece of meat, with the seal chasing him beneath the ice and leaving the other dogs free to eat until it figures out what’s going on and doubles back, lunging at the dogs from behind and crippling Maya.
- Mood Whiplash: The scene where the dogs are bounding around beneath the Southern Lights, perfectly happy. One of the dogs then falls and is fatally injured.
- No One Gets Left Behind: At first averted, as the dogs are left behind; Shepherd, however, then makes every effort to go back and rescue them.
- Played straight at the end. When the dogs are all rescued, Max refuses to leave at first. He leads Jerry back to Maya (who is weak but still alive), refusing to abandon her.
- Ret Irony: Old Jack.
- Sled Dogs Through the Snow: The team of sled dogs composed of two Alaskan Malamutes, Buck and Shadow, and six Siberian Huskies, Max, Maya, Truman, Dewey, Shorty, and Old Jack. Mushing isn't a major part of the film since the main plot is about the dogs being left behind by the humans, but the early scenes that feature it serve to establish the team dynamics among the dogs. Namely that Maya is the boss and Max is the runt who needs to prove himself.
- Team Dad: Jerry. He even calls the dogs "kids".
- Team Mom: Maya is this among the dogs.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The true story behind this film was the 1958 Japanese scientific expedition to the South Pole. When the crew had to leave due to extreme weather conditions, they left their fifteen Sakhalin huskies behind thinking that they would come back and get them. However, they found that they couldn't due to fuel shortage and didn't return for a year. When they did, they were greeted by two dogs named Taro and Jiro who had managed to survive. Not quite as cheery an ending as Disney would like, but still pretty remarkable considering that huskies can only survive for about a month in that kind of environment.
- Wintry Auroral Sky: Being in Antarctica, this is to be expected, and one scene is dedicated to the dogs playfully frolicking under the southern lights. Then a dog plummets from a cliffside and dies of his injuries.