The man vs nature genre of action/adventure films is usually a pretty reliable one when it comes to attractive scenery and entertaining scraps between man and beast. From the popcorn perfection of Jaws to the bloody thrills of Savage Harvest there’s a visceral thrill to be found in battles fought fist against claw (or teeth, beak, trunk, etc). With the exception of the very best however the films are usually pure entertainment that stop well short of anything resembling engaging human drama.
The Grey is one of those exceptions.
“Live or die on this day.”
A group of oil-field workers in Alaska settles in for dinner at camp after a hard day’s work, but one of the men looks distant and not all together thrilled with the cafeteria food. Ottway (Liam Neeson) leaves the company of his coworkers and heads out into the cold night air. He falls to his knees with a hopeless and lost look in his eyes, and presses the barrel of his rifle to his face. He’s a man on the verge of giving up completely, but something halts his trigger finger, and he instead boards a plane the next morning bound for Anchorage with some of the other guys.
But when the plane crashes killing most of the passengers on board Ottway and a handful of survivors find themselves stuck in the inhospitable Alaskan wilderness. He assumes a leadership role out of instinct, but before the group can come to a consensus as to their next course of action they discover that freezing weather and starvation aren’t the only threats they face. It seems they’ve crashed into a stretch of frozen wasteland called home by a pack of wolves, and it’s a home the animals are desperate to protect.
Ottway and the eight other men are forced to fight for their lives against the harsh elements of nature as they make their way towards safety. But can they trust their lives to a man who just hours prior was ready to give up on his own?
The Grey is an adventure film that dips its frostbitten toes into both the drama and horror genres, and the result is a surprisingly powerful tale of survival peppered with jump scares and heartfelt emotion. It isn’t simply about physical survival either as it champions the desire and will to live and questions the source of that strength in the men. Whether it be your family waiting for you back home, your faith in a higher power, or the simple drive to go down swinging the film highlights that will as an essential element to life. Ottway in particular is someone whose inner strength is in question, but flashbacks to a life before Alaska reveal both a reason to give up and a reason to go on on living. It’s far heavier stuff than a genre picture usually attempts, but Neeson and director Joe Carnahan nail it.
The last few years of Neeson’s career have seen him capitalizing on the success of Taken by placing him in the tough guy role as someone who never flinches and always succeeds. That trend continues somewhat here, but the character of Ottway also offers up a rare fragility visible on Neeson’s face and captured in multiple close-ups by Carnahan. The actor is more powerful in his troubled silence than he is spouting threats and one-liners.
The remaining men, played by Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Frank Grillo and others, offer varied levels of back-story and baggage, but they all add to the rough and gritty texture of the film. They’re described as “men unfit for mankind” for a reason as they prove through their actions and choices that the top of the world (or close to it) may be the best place for them. Some early deaths are done for horrific effect and to dwindle down the numbers, but later ones begin to hurt as characters who’ve crossed over from disposable to personable fall victim to the wolves and the environment.
Carnahan and co-writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers keep things well paced as the film moves between the quiet moments where character is discussed and the action and attack scenes where character is defined. The film’s more dramatic scenes are equally helped by Mar Streitenfeld’s score as well as a short reprise by Jamin Winans that gets replayed at key moments.
It’s unfortunate that a film so focused on humanity and nature is let down by the intrusion of technology, but the weakest element on display here is the visual effects. A few of the shots stand out for their obvious green screen/CGI-enhanced look with the most egregious being a scene involving a cliff and a tree. It should have been a suspenseful and edge of your seat set-piece, but the lacking visual aesthetic distracts too much and it’s instead diffused of much of its power.
The wolves on the other hand, which are composed mostly of CGI and practical effects, are pretty effective. They’re realistic enough for the most part even if the alpha wolf does tease a hefty resemblance to Gmork from The NeverEnding Story. The attacks are done in a furious, fast cut style that flashes fangs, hair and blood across the screen, and wide shots are filled with a calm menace. The only real problem regarding the creatures is the statement Ottway makes that “wolves are the only animal that will seek revenge.” Has he not seen Orca? Or Taken for that matter…
The Grey is a fantastic adventure and easily Carnahan’s most mature and entertaining picture. It’s both frightening and exhilarating throughout, and some sloppy effects aside, does a great job of putting viewers on the cold, dangerous Alaskan tundra with characters worth caring about. Parts of it are played like a horror film, but the film never casts the wolves as real monsters or the “bad guys.” Instead it’s about survival on all sides in a world where bad things simply happen, challenges must be endured, and the only thing you can really count on to get you through is yourself.
The Upside: Exciting and suspenseful action scenes; characters are fully realized instead of simple cardboard action-hero cutouts; far more emotional than you’d expect; powerful and haunting ending
The Downside: Some terribly obvious CGI and green-screen in a couple scenes