Movie Review: Digital wolves undo “The Grey”

2stars“The Grey” is an old fashioned survival tale harboring pretensions that it is something more. Not a lot more, just a hint of the  psycho-cerebral, here, a smidge of the primal and primitive there.

Liam Neeson stars in director Joe Carnahan’s latest splash of testosterone (“Smoking Aces” was his) about a wintry plane crash in the Alaskan arctic in which the survivors are stalked by wolve. Their only protection –each other and the hunter (Neeson) whose job it was to understand wolves and shoot them when they got too close to oil workers.

The crash itself is scary, surreal and graphic, among the best ever filmed. Those who walk away from it find themselves in a snowy hell.

Then we start to meet the sketched-in “types” that the script has packed onto that plane and the movie loses its lovely promise, if not its premise. There’s the sensitive guy with brains (Dallas Roberts), the dad missing his kid (Dermot Mulroney), the hothead Latino ex-con (Frank Grillo), the gentle man-mountain (Nonso Anonzie), a few others.

They’re in the middle of nowhere, with no real survival gear and no prayer of being found in this blizzard. Not before they freeze to death. Not before the wolves get them.

Neeson, as Ottway, the hunter who takes over this survivor “pack” and lays out the wolf problem — pack dynamics, territory, feeding range. The men, a rough crew of strangers, must scramble through whiteout conditions, keeping warm, keeping the wolves at bay, on a trek to safety.

The idea from this script by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers is that the humans revert to a sort of pack mentality, with Ottway as the alpha dog, challenged by others as the weak and the careless are picked off. The characters  pick up random bits of backstory and the film begs us to wonder about the woman we see in Ottway’s vivid, hallucinagenic flashbacks.

The spare use of music emphasizes the howling tundra winds, and the production design gets across the bleak, hostile terrain this mismatched crew must master. The dialogue is hard-bitten, but not particularly punchy or pithy. They ha11ve “dog” problems, right?

“I’m much more of a cat person, really.”

Death scenes are handled with a manly grace, with the fatalistic Ottway (Neeson was perfect for this) urging the dying to let it “slide over you.”

But “The Grey” sets up scenarios that it forgets about, such as how to battle a wolf pack — “We kill’em, one at a time.” And I couldn’t decide if they lost track of the wolves in the editing, or if Carnahan realized how “Twilight” fake the beasts looked and limited their scenes in the final edit.

Digital scenery, digitally enhanced snowstorms? good. Digital wolves or werewolves? Bad.

Why, in this post – “Avatar” pixellated era this should be the law is anybody’s guess.

The makings of a solid adventure tale were here. But what came out in “The Grey” is entirely too much like the title — colorless, and grey, and a too digital for its own good.

MPAA Rating:R for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language

Cast Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney.

Credits: Directed by Joe Carnahan, written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, based on a story by Jeffers. Am Open Road release. Running time: 1:52

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8 Responses to Movie Review: Digital wolves undo “The Grey”

  1. John says:

    Not a very good review. Most of your reasons for why you dont like the effects is lack of “great” special effects.

    • Well, it’s a bit pretentious too. Considering the material. Believable wolves are kind of a deal-killer, in any event.

      • Steve says:

        Agreed. If a key part of the plot, especially one supposed to incite some sort of emotion, looks like a CS students capstone, you have problems.

  2. Ozzy says:

    I don’t think the film sets up scenarios that it forgets about. Just because Neeson says “we kill them, one at a time” doesn’t mean the crew are gonna go an Arnie-esque hunt of the wolves. Neeson just wants vengeance. He is saying this line in hatred. Also, his character is not stupid.He knows better than to fight wolves on their home turf. He is merely Stating what he would like to do.

    • Carnahan was trying for something more existential, and missed, I think. What Steve said about the digital wolves boils down my thoughts on them more concisely. I cannot find my notes, but there were story threads that must have gotten short shrift in the editing — misplaced.

  3. Breck Wilson says:

    I know this is obviously just your opinion on the film, but I think you’re off the mark on this one. One point I want to make is that animatronics were used for many of the wolf scenes, not just CG (though it was obvious in some scenes). I really bought into the relationships with the characters (and the Diaz character had a nice arc), and Neeson’s performance I feel is Oscar-worthy (I think it is worth noting that his performance is especially powerful considering his actual wife died a couple years back which I’m sure he drew from). I think you’re being a little too critical toward this film, but you do bring up a couple good points.

  4. Joe Albertson says:

    Good review. The problem with watching this movie is that it requires you to suspend too many point of reality:
    1. The number of documented wolf attacks in all of history can be counted on one hand. This movie makes then out to be a human predator on the order of the great white shark with chum in the water. The filmmaker must be a very generous donor to the Sierra Club to not have them beating his door down.
    2. The petroleum and mining companies DO NOT hire full-time wolf-hunters to protect their workers. See #1 above.
    3. There’s a reason why survival experts always tell you stay with the plane wreckage. Airliners have crash-survivable battery-powered beacons that broadcast on emergency radio frequencies AND certain satellite frequencies. And any large pieces of wreckage that can be used for shelter are better than walking miles across an open snowfield.
    4. If you fell in water that cold and spent several minutes fighting your way back out, you’d be dead before you could exit the water. And even if you did exit the water into Alaska winter snow, cold, and wind, you’d still be dead faster than you could say Jack Robinson.

    But what really drives me nuts about this flick is the annoying lack of closure on anything. (Leaving some things to the imagination is good, but not EVERYTHING.) They make a big deal about collecting wallets for the surviving families, then we never know if any of them were ever found. Then, right at the climax where the final showdown between the last-standing alpha-man and alpha-wolf (where did his wolf-friends suddenly go?) is about to happen, the screen goes black and the credits roll? We don’t get to find out if Ottway survives? We don’t find out if the wreckage, human remains, or the wallets are ever found?

    I understand, action movies always have the big showdown at the end between the good guy and the bad guy/beast, and the bad guy/beast always loses. And he usually springs back to life, gets his fingers around the good guy’s throat, and has to be “killed” again to finally end it. OK, fine, this movie was trying to do something different. But at least give us something!! Right at the film’s climax, all we get is a fade-to-black! Talk about a ripoff! It’s bad enough that I had to suspend a tremendous amount of reality and look past quite a few egregious plot errors to just remain sitting and finish the movie. Then, at the “end”, we don’t get an ending?!?! That right there earns this movie one star out of five.

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