By Myriam Ghattas
The trailer sold a sci-fi type horror flick with cheap thrills and a snowy destitute landscape. The subject of its advertisement seemed to fall into that category of films listed in eponymous actor Liam Neeson’s overflowing portfolio of projects in which he graces us with his presence for fun rather than for any intrinsic artistic value.
Defying all expectations, “The Grey” (2012) has held its ground in the box-office rankings, debuting at number one and remaining in the top five at time of press.
As it turns out, the movie is far less a horror film than it is an existential drama and there is not a shred of science fiction involved but rather as primal a battle as they come.
If “The Grey’s” thrills can be called cheap, it is only in as much as it contains poorly constructed computer-generated imagery of somewhat larger than life wolves that in itself takes away from the otherwise raw and realistic quality of the remainder of the story and forces to one’s recollection a most unfortunate and off-putting ongoing saga in cinematic history parading itself under the title of a solar phenomenon.
“The Grey” tells the story of a team of workers for an oil rigging company stationed in Alaska who become stranded in the vast unforgiving expanse of this northernmost state after their plane crashes amidst a snow storm on its way to Anchorage. The survivors must contend with their limited food supplies, their prolonged exposure to forbiddingly cold weather and, last but not least, their trespassing on a different turf, namely that of the wolves whose natural habitat is where the plane crashes.
The men will soon learn that, taken out of their comfort zone and deprived of the reliable use of their superior “toys,” their every mistake, their arguments and tensions can and will result in an increasingly critical thinning of their numbers. This is essentially the story of a humbling episode from the everlasting conflict-ridden relationship between humankind and the animal kingdom, one in which the scales may for once in a blue moon get tipped over.
It is also the story of men who have sought to run away from their lives and their past mistakes only to find themselves forced to reflect upon and face them. “The Grey” offers a metaphysical exploration of life, death, fear, isolation, intimidation, power struggles, courage, love and loss.
Director Joe Carnahan, best known for his work on “Smokin’ Aces” (2006) and “The A-Team” (2010), co-wrote the script with author Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who penned the short story “Ghost Walker” that “The Grey” is based on.
Neeson plays Ottway, the leader of the pack, a role that was originally destined for another one of his A-Team co-stars, Bradley Cooper. This alteration in the casting of the main character works quite well in favor of the narrative as Neeson endows his Alfa-male character with the qualities of a weathered experienced hunter in combination with a sensible vulnerability and mellowness that enrich his authoritative and assertive efforts to unite the men while attempting to guide them to safety.
Carnahan’s film showcases its strongest attribute in the filmmaker’s ability to allow the men’s sense of endangerment, their doubts and their struggle, as they take every dreadful step forward on shaky grounds, to guide the pace of the narrative. The longer the men survive in this wilderness, the more societal veils they remove from their consciousness.
They eventually come to realizations about who they are as individuals, what their contributions to society — or lack thereof — have amounted to and ultimately what, if any, would be the value of their reintegration within society. Carnahan’s insightful exploration of these men’s physical and spiritual journeys is one that is most moving and most difficult to watch.
While “The Grey” exhibits a highly commendable mastery of storytelling and an innate balance of suspense and introspective reflection, the film has failings that can be hard to overlook.
Carnahan resorts to disruptive flashbacks, robbing the unfolding events of their immediacy. The backgrounds of the men illustrated in these flashbacks are underdeveloped, melodramatic and stereotypical. The women from their past lives are portrayed as mere indefinite shadows that they remember and yearn for as they hover over the critical divide between life and death.
The ending, though clearly striving to set itself apart from the usual Hollywoodish farfetched conclusions, is hardly earned and impossible to take seriously. It recalls almost exactly the ending of another film, Edward Zwick’s “Legends of the Fall” (1995) except that the relationship between man and animal was significantly developed over the course of Zwick’s film while in “The Grey,” that connection is merely circumstantial.
The unwavering honest depiction of Ottway and his team members’ external and internal struggles in “The Grey” allows the film’s pitfalls to be dismissed as inconsequential choices in the big picture. Carnahan produces a remarkable feat of storytelling with his film, one that may well inspire his audience to take a hard look at their own lives and perhaps make certain choices differently.