A man who has lost the will to live must save a group of men after a plane crash in the midst of Alaska. That is a compelling premise.
If you lost the will to live, is there any value in human life? How do you value someone else’s life? Is there even any point in running away when you are in the face of death?
The Grey asks these existential questions but doesn’t get bogged down by the weight of them. It externalizes these ideas into something entertaining: a survival film. And more importantly, the film doesn’t leave these questions unanswered. It manages to answer them from the point of view of Liam Nesson’s character, John Ottway. And if there’s one thing that Liam Nesson does really well, it is bringing gravitas to a role and a story, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be (i.e. in Taken where he singlehandedly takes on Paris. Or heck, even the scene in The A-Team where the team in a tank falling from the sky and he orders the team to maneuver the tank through firing out of its cannon).
The structure of the story is that of a philosophy thesis. These characters exist as viewpoints. Survival arguments between the characters are disguised existential arguments. One noteworthy scene is where all the men sit around in a campfire and share their personal stories, it works both as character development and on a thematic level establishes what they all have to live for as existential discussion. As for the wolves, I know nothing about wolves and their social behavior. I don’t know if they make sounds like a Tyrannosaur Rex or sneak up on people like ninjas as they’re portrayed in The Grey. And you know what? It does not matter one single bit. These are not real wolves. These are thematic existential wolves. Yes, they exist as an idea and they work like that of a movie monster metaphor.
As for the set pieces, they are brutal. They reportedly shot in -40 degree weather and it looks it. We feel the pain of these deaths. The balance between the philosophical and the survival film tropes make it a thrilling experience.
The A-Team and Smoking Aces was both fun fluff, but The Grey is levels higher and it shows maturity and improvement on the filmmaker’s behalf. This is the best Joe Carnahan film has made yet.
I’m all for not hurting animals, but there’s something really badass about watching Liam Nesson punching a wolf. The Grey is aware of its popcorn movie layer though despite of that has much higher ambitions than to simply entertain, it chooses to say something deep instead. And it succeeds. Or else they could have just named the movie – Liam Nesson: Wolf Puncher.