The Grey (2012) is a fantastic wilderness survival film from director Joe Carnahan about a group of oil workers whose flight home to Anchorage crash-lands in the godless, frozen Alaskan wilderness, where the survivors are forced to fend off a pack of blood-thirsty wolves. The media campaign for this film had me (and most others) believe that it would be a slick B-movie; full of action and destruction, where the power of testosterone would be enough to conquer nature itself (star Liam Neeson is seen in the trailer taping a knife to one hand and several broken bottles to the other, just before fighting a huge wolf off with his bare hands). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Grey was much, much more than that.
As it turns out, The Grey is an extremely dark and hopeless story – a rarity in Hollywood – from the opening shot to the closing credits, The Grey is a meditation on death. In this film, as in reality, death comes to everyone for different reasons – sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently, but one thing is for sure – death comes to us all eventually. The important thing is what we live for before we die – and this is where The Grey really flourishes, as it also turns out to be a pretty fantastic ensemble character study – another rarity. Ottway (Liam Neeson) is undeniably the main character, but each one of his fellow survivors are carefully developed and given a unique sense of purpose and camaraderie in the film. The acting was wonderful all around and I really got the sense that every actor had a great understanding of their character, which made it difficult to let go each and every time a character bit the dust.
As for the horror elements, they are handled pretty admirably. There are a few jump-scares, which are usually considered to be the cheapest horror gimmick, but were used sparingly and effectively here. Most of all, once the wolves appear on screen for the first time, an overwhelming sense of suspense and dread looms thick in the atmosphere of the film for most of the running time, which I absolutely loved.
On the technical side of things, the wolves themselves were presented using a mix of trained animals, animatronic puppets, and CG to somewhat mixed results. These wolves happen to be bigger and meaner and scarier than any real animal could have been, so I understand why CG was necessary, and though it wasn’t the best animation I’ve seen, I actually thought the appearance of the wolves was very frightening. The cinematography, handled by Masanobu Takayanagi was absolutely perfect. The Grey is one of the only winter films that actually made me feel cold just by looking at it. His cinematography was equally effective at enhancing the horror elements as well – what could be scarier than sitting by a campfire in the dark woods, and only being able to see the warm breath of dozens of killer wolves float above the horizon as they encircle you and your friends? Not much. The sound design was incredible too, with crunching ice and howling wolves surrounding the audience and building a wild, imposing atmosphere – this is a film that is really worth seeing in theaters. The score, composed by Ridley Scott regular Marc Streitenfeld, is used minimally, but does a wonderful job of accenting certain emotional scenes.
Overall, I loved The Grey, and feel that fans of similar dark ensemble thrillers such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) will feel the same. In fact, Ridley Scott served as a producer on The Grey, along with his brother Tony, and it may not be a coincidence that one character in the film wears a hat with the letters “WY” on it (could it be a reference to Weyland-Yutani, the evil mega-corporation from the Alien films?). All speculation aside, The Grey was an excellent film that managed to be uniquely dark, and yet tender, personal, terrifying, and touching all at once. Despite the fact that (without giving any spoilers away) the ending is a tad anti-climactic, I give The Grey a near-perfect 4.5/5.