I’m really glad that I caught up on this movie, which I actually had wanted to see at the time of its theatrical release, but never got around to. The back of the DVD describes it as “a gripping man-versus-nature action thriller”, and it does succeed on that front, but it also turned out to be much more thoughtful and philosophical than Liam Neeson vs. Wolves.
Neeson plays John Ottway, a man whose job is to shoot wolves for an oil company somewhere in Alaska, and who’s haunted by some unexplained tragedy concerning his wife, to the point where, at the beginning of the film, he walks out of the crowded bar one night and sticks the rifle into his mouth. He obviously doesn’t go through with it, and instead flies out with the rest of the workers on leave to Anchorage. Big surprise, their small plane crashes in the Alaskan wintry wilderness, with only seven survivors left. They soon realise that their biggest threat is not hunger or cold, but a pack of ravenous wolves near whose den they had the misfortune to crash. Because of his experience, Ottway immediately takes charge of the group, and insists that their only chance of making it is to abandon the plane and keep slogging through the woods.
In some way, this is a typical survival flick about a bunch of people who inevitably die one by one on their road to safety (mercifully, this movie bypasses the “black dude dies first” cliché, which I kinda expected once I spotted him among the survivors). As such, it’s done really well; it feels gritty, intense and naturalistic, and when the action/bad stuff happens the movie takes an effort to make the viewer feel like they’re experiencing it together with the characters. I was really squirming on my couch when the plane was going down or when the wolves attacked. As deadly as the Alaskan landscape is, its silent chilly beauty never fails to move when I see it onscreen. I was dreading fake CGI wolves that would completely take me out of the film, but as we see them mostly at night with lots of extreme close-ups/distant shots, they were fine. I’m usually not quite down with the “the most terrifying thing is the one you can’t see”, but the film’s scariest shot is easily the one where you see nothing but the animals’ glowing eyes against the darkness. Even though they’re terrifying, the film doesn’t really paint the wolves as evil – they’re just a part of nature and it’s really the humans who don’t belong on their turf.
Neeson is the perfect anchor for the movie, though I have to admit that, if he wasn’t obviously a very damaged man, Ottway might have annoyed me a bit with his wise, all-knowing MacGyver routine. There’s some time for conversation between the men, giving the supporting characters enough personality for me to hope, against the odds, that they’ll make it through (one of them, I realised later, was played by Dermot Mulroney who is unrecognisable from his hunk turn in My Best Friend’s Wedding). It was near the end that I finally got what the movie was really about – it’s not really about wolves or surviving; wolves here merely represent the oblivious and inevitable death. Faith, the will to survive, the different ways we face the inevitable is where The Grey really rises above its genre, especially with the ending that’s definitely not the norm you’d expect in this kind of movie. It left me genuinely impressed.