If you’re wondering whether or not to see Liam Neeson’s latest vehicle, The Grey (note pretentious British spelling), there’s a simple litmus test: Do you like Jack London? If your answer is yes, then this film is for you. Skip the rest of this review.
If, on the other hand, White Fang confused you, Call of the Wild aggravated you, and you would have gladly endured frostbite yourself rather than read one more page of “To Build a Fire” (the most wretched short story to ever disgrace the pages of a middle school literature anthology), if you, like me, are a Jack London hater, then this movie is most definitely NOT for you.
The Grey is an obnoxious exercise in alpha-male existentialism. Period.
The plot involves a bunch of roughnecks who have been working for a petroleum company in northern Alaska. Their flight back to civilization crashes, and a handful of survivors are left to fight for their lives against the bitter cold, the unforgiving landscape, and a pack of aggressively territorial wolves.
At this point, I would normally warn SPOILERS AHEAD. But once that plane hits the frozen tundra, the rest of the movie is painfully predictable. At regular intervals, the seven survivors die: by wolf, by landscape, by despair. The only question is whether Neeson’s character, John Ottway, will make it out alive, but as the movie makes it abundantly clear, it actually doesn’t matter. The universe is a giant crap shoot, and if the wolves don’t get you today, something else will tomorrow. One of the first scenes shows Ottway with a shotgun in his mouth, contemplating suicide. The movie suggests that, ultimately, it didn’t matter that he chose not to pull the trigger. Certainly, the film awards gravitas to Ottway’s choice to go down swinging, but it also gives dignity to the guy who chooses to sit down and wait for the wolves. Going out on your own terms is the best that can be hoped for.
I should probably confirm the lurking suspicion in the back of everybody’s mind: No, I am not an existentialist. I believe in the transcendental. I hope for a lot more than going out on my own terms.
However, the fact that my own world view is radically different doesn’t mean that I’m unable to appreciate or be moved by existentialist stories. Waiting for Godot drives me to fury and to hysteria. “Miss Brill” breaks my heart with the poignancy of human tragedy. Lord of the Flies terrifies me. So why did The Grey do nothing more than annoy the snot out of me? (And I have a cold right now, so we’re talking about a lot of snot…)
1. Women are reduced to props for male egos. There are no actual women in this movie. The closest we get are a half dozen flashbacks to Ottway’s wife. She’s never named, she never speaks except to encourage Ottway, and never moves except to touch him. At the end, we find out the woman is dead—she literally does not exist apart from his memories, which mold her existence around his own. Any other reference to women in the film is the same—they exist to fulfill men sexually and/or emotionally. There is no suggestion that a woman might be a person in her own right.
2. The film under-appreciates its own irony. *SPOILER* Ottway discovers that the whole time he’s been trying to escape, he’s been walking toward the wolves’ den. In the world of the movie, this is the ultimate irony, and it’s a moment that’s genuinely funny (unlike the penultimate death scene where I inappropriately burst into the giggles). If Ottway had thrown back his head and had one hearty guffaw over the sheer ridiculousness of his entire adventure, I might have forgiven the movie at least some of its testosterone driven nihilism. But instead, Ottway stiffens his spine, chants a battle verse composed by his father, and charges. Sigh.
3. The plot is tragically short on MacGyver homage. I like a wilderness survival story as much as the next nerdy girl, but a key component of the survival story from Robinson Crusoe on is the Macgyvering—making a sulfuric acid plug out of chocolate bars, or the Arctic equivalent. But we get only two instances—one where the survivors make boom sticks (which are disappointing in action), and one at the very end, where Ottway tapes broken bottles between the knuckles of one hand, and a knife to the other, thus growing claws to match the wolf’s. It was a great moment, but too little too late.
4. There was not enough wolf footage. The magnificent Alaskan scenery was some compensation, but I would have appreciated more shots of the fabulous wolves. They may be monsters in this film, but they’re beautiful monsters. (At one point, I thought seriously about rooting for them, but I couldn’t quite break out of my species box.)
5. It makes violence the ultimate human achievement.
I think that covers it. Enough ranting for one day!