- Vancouver, British Columbia - Survival stories are hardly anything new, as they have served as the foundation for many tales of man's conquering over the elements and the beasts. The Grey is a film that presents us yet another modern re-telling of such story. Survivalist stories tend to have two ways that they go, the route of the thriller where we simply do not know if who will still be alive in the end, or of the horror, where we watch as our heroes are slowly, but methodically killed off one by one. I'll leave you in suspense as to which one The Grey is, because quite honestly, it is a film that we never really know which it is throughout, and oddly enough, it works to its benefit.
The Grey follows the fortunes of a group of Alaskan oil workers, who find themselves stranded in the middle of a desolate Alaskan clearing in the frigid winter after their plane goes down. They had been expecting to take a respite in Anchorage. With most of the passengers killed in the crash, The Grey follows the men's attempt to survive not only the elements, but also a pack of fearless and territorial wolves, which view them both as competition and as a potential food source. The group is essentially lead by John Ottway (Liam Neeson), an Irishman, who is clearly dealing with the grief of losing the one woman he loved. As an armed guard for the oil company's workers when they would be working in the wilderness, he is a skilled marksman and outdoorsman, and naturally he guides the group in their pursuit of survival, which due to a variety of personalities within the group, leads to a number of clashes.
What is probably the most spectacular element about this film was the plane's crash landing. Having never been in a plane crash myself, I can't attest to its accuracy, but I can tell you that the cinematic experience matched my nightmares of being in a plane crash in a way that was neither gratuitous nor gory, but entirely horrific. A huge part of what makes this film successful is the work of the sound and light engineers, who did a fantastic job. It contributed to an immersive cinematic experience. The Grey was filmed in Smithers, British Columbia during the middle of winter, and quite honestly, it shows. Smithers, British Columbia is located in the northern reaches of Central British Columbia, which can be quite chilly during the winter. Some critics have decried the lack of shivering on the part of the actors onscreen, but I must've been watching a different film, as the characters often look like they were struggling to cope with the cold.
One aspect that worried me before watching this film was how the wolves would be shown. The CGI animals in 2008's 10000 BC were much maligned, but thankfully, the film makers decided to go with animatronics in this film instead. They had success in this aspect through the way that they shot them, which prevented us from ever seeing that they were obviously animatronics. There is a suspicion about them, but it is never confirmed by what we see. This was executed through a good use of lighting, while also having smart writing by preventing the animals from needing to be shot in a way that would reveal them to be fake. The wolves were terrifying, and as one other reviewer stated, they illuminated a primal fear of man, that being, the mystery of what is beyond the light of the campfire.
An interesting element of this film that I'm not entirely sure everyone else may pick up on was how as the film progressed, the survival of the group ended up becoming not much different than the politics of the wolf pack. Continually, Ottway's control of the group is challenged by other far-younger challengers, who seek control of the group. Competition is slowly done away with and Ottway retains his grip as Alpha Male of the group, and this motif is hinted at further with the characters' observations of the politics of the wolf pack.
I heard someone say about this film that it probably has as much appeal for women as Sex and the City films do for men, but this isn't entirely accurate. Survival is a universal human struggle, except for maybe the women of Sex and the City. The Grey, while an entirely male cast apart from the flight attendant who is briefly seen on the plane, worked because of its appeal to universal themes that are encountered when one's survival is at stake. Sex and the City represents little more than a fantasy for many women, who can only dream of living such self-indulgent life as Carrie and her girls. Don't get me wrong, Entourage is no better, but I've never cared to give that the time of day either. To me, it is nothing more than Sex and the City for men. That aside, The Grey is a story that is easy to connect with, because the direction of Joe Carnahan and the writing of Eric Roth. The pacing is not perfect, but it is darn well close to it. At times, we may not understand why the wolves let up against the stranded group, but in those pauses, we're given a chance to empathize more with the characters and learn more about them. Some might consider this a horror film, but at no point do we cheer the deaths of our plane crash survivors. It's incredible, because some of the characters are entirely unlikable as human beings, but it is easy to invest our concern in them, since they appeal to universal human elements.
The ending of the film was crafted well for the general tone of the film. I have great respect for directors who are brave enough to leave some mystery about what really happened in the end, since some audiences can react negatively to the ambiguity, but in the opinion of yours truly, it often causes the film to remain in the minds of its audiences long after the final credits have rolled. The emphasis placed on the poem, which Neeson's Ottway refers to throughout the film, is perfectly brought into this climactic ending. While the poem itself may not be lyrically incredible, in context, it packs an emotional punch, making it much more memorable than most poetry out there today.
The Grey was a very positive turn in the career of director Joe Carnahan and lead actor Liam Neeson. Carnahan previously made The A-Team, which if I'm honest, was unengaging and left me feeling rather indifferent towards the film, even though I knew someone who worked on the film. After putting together a great performance in Taken, Neeson stumbled with duds like Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, and worst of all, Unknown, which was such an incoherent mess, I didn't know if he could return to a place of favour in my eyes. In The Grey, Neeson shows a bit of the magic that we saw in Taken, which made him very easy to connect with and cheer for. He leads this cast boldly, while never being over the top about it. All in all, The Grey was an enjoyable, and at times touching, film that will stay with me.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes