For two of the past three years, Liam Neeson has given filmgoers a wonderful present of a terrific thriller to start the movie year, Taken in 2009, and Unknown in 2011, both of which received my top rating.
He’s trying again this year, but this time it’s a film with a message, which lessens my enthusiasm.
Underneath this tense Liam Neeson thriller is a thought-provoking allegory about man’s relationship with nature in the guise of a battle to the death between an Alaskan wolf pack and oil workers who survive a brilliantly filmed plane crash. Writer (with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who wrote the short story, Ghost Walker, upon which the film is based)-director Joe Carnahan stacks the decks by making the victims of the plane crash, and the combatants vs. the wolves, employees of an oil company working in the Alaska wilderness, which is where the big controversy is about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which the Democrats unrealistically, virulently oppose. The idea is that these guys are invading a pristine wilderness that the wolves are protecting.
While thrillers often have to combat plot holes and things that are less than credible, The Grey has more than you can shake a stick at.
Liam is an unhappy guy employed by the oil company to kill wolves who threaten its employees in the Alaska wilderness.
While the movie is tense, there are just too many things that don’t stack up to make this as memorable as Taken and Unknown. I’m not giving any spoilers here when I list some of the many things that bothered me, although I would dearly love to comment on the ending.
First, of course, is the plane crash. The way Carnahan presents the plane crash is nothing short of spectacular. Told from the POV of the passengers, this is probably exactly the way this type of crash would occur. Those scenes are this movie at its best.
What’s simply not credible, however, is that in such a horrific crash, where the plane is almost totally destroyed, anyone would survive, much less seven people. And that they could survive without so much as a scratch is preposterous.
Then Neeson presents himself to his fellow survivors as an expert on survival. So, even though they are threatened by a pack of wolves, he insists that they leave the relative comfort and safety of the crash site, where the remains of the plane provide shelter and protection against both the environment and the wolves. He has them all traverse open snowfields to get to the “trees.” As if being in the forest is going to protect them from the wolves? I think that most survival experts advise staying with a crash so that rescuers might better be able to find them. If they wander off, there’s no way rescuers could have a clue as to where they might have gone. That said, where’s the common sense that being in the woods provides safety from a pack of wolves? But if they stay with the plane, the allegory fails.
Then they start walking (who knows where?) and come to a canyon. They are on one side and want to get to the other. It appears to be about 50 feet wide. How to get to the other side? Simple, in this movie. They have one of them run and jump. Instead of going straight down, which would happen if nature controlled here, he miraculously appears on the other side so he can tie a rope together for them to all shinny across the rope to get to the other side. This isn’t a Superman movie, so I can’t imagine anybody buying this.
I was looking forward to a film that made me feel the coldness of what they were going through. One of the best films for capturing temperature was Body Heat (1981), a terrific noir set in a small town in Florida during a heat wave. In that film director Lawrence Kasdan and stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner made everyone in the audience sweat as they portrayed the way the debilitating heat affected them. I was expecting this film to capture the cold of being trapped outside in sub-zero temperatures. But neither the director nor the actors made the biting cold a part of the film. They didn’t shiver, ice didn’t form on their faces or beards (oh, sometimes Neeson had snow on his face, but it didn’t seem to make him cold), there was no frostbite, there was hardly ever any indication that they were even cold! (To give the other side, my companion at the movie felt cold throughout).
Worse, Carnahan seems to be from the Terrence Malick school of directing and loves to zoom in on Neeson’s face as he thinks … and thinks … and thinks. He does a lot of thinking in this movie and we are with him every step of the way.
There’s more, but what’s the point? All in all, although the film was tense and entertaining, it was a disappointment. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, it coulda been better.