It is cold, so very cold. The darkness is gone, replaced by stinging, blinding snow. You aren’t in your seat, you’re lying in snow, it is all around you. You can feel the cold, piercing, like a knife into every inch of your skin. You gather your wits and look around. The plane is in pieces, scattered across an ocean of white. Through the howling wind you make out a noise—it’s someone screaming for help. Fighting through the cold and shock, you run towards the noise to find a man still belted to his seat, he’s hysterical, there’s a dead body in the seat next to him. You free the man and together make your way towards the fuselage of the plane. There are other survivors there, but it’s clear that not everyone made it. They’re all mortified. You remember that it’s your job to protect them. You get a fire going as quick as possible. The others speak of rescue, but you know it won’t come. This is the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, in the middle of storm season. Nobody is going to be able to find you. Oh yeah, there is also a pack of wolves, watching your group from the darkness, waiting to pick you all off one by one.
This is the set-up for “The Grey,” and it is one of the most exciting, terrifying and memorable survival films to come along in ages. Liam Neeson plays a lonely roughneck in charge of protecting oilrig workers from wildlife at a remote Alaskan refinery. On their way back to society, the plane crashes, stranding Neeson and a few survivors in the middle of nowhere. On top of having to battle cold, hunger, fatigue and working-out a route back to civilization, the group is being hunted by a pack of ferocious wolves.
“The Grey” mixes elements of nature survival, monster films and even elements of philosophy and questions of spirituality. Neeson’s character Ottoway is a man with a sad past. Flashbacks to someone perceived to be his wife, and sorrowful narrations of his inability to “get” her back, paint a backstory of tragedy and loss. One haunting scene early into the film, in particular, establishes Ottoway’s tragic inability to stop fighting to survive, despite having lost the desire to live.
This is not a film of uplifting messages and positivity. The survivors’ trek out of the wilderness is filled with horror, dread and the constant threat of death. “The Grey” sends a strong message about happenstance, and makes it clear that even if your will to live is as strong as can be, nobody is safe from death.
The touches of spirituality, or lack thereof, in “The Grey” makes the groups’ fight for survival feel very down to earth. They discuss the existence or absence of a god and the possibility of life after death, or that death is all there is. The survivors all try to find something to believe in, something to keep them going. For some, it’s the prospect of a higher-power watching over them, for others, its their skill and determination to not give up.
Acceptance is another major theme in “The Grey.” Characters that start off fearful or unlikable undergo change in the hostile environment. A character that brushes the crash, and subsequent fight for survival, as fate’s way of being cruel, is forced to accept that his best hope for survival is to work together with the group. A particularly poignant scene involves a character’s acceptance of his death. Lacking the energy to continue moving, and just wishing to have a few moments of peace before the end, he sits against a log, taking in the gorgeous view of the world, before the sounds of the river before him are replaced by the growling of approaching wolves. “I’m not afraid,” he says to himself, before the wolves take him.
“The Grey” is a truly beautiful, somber, haunting and heart-breaking experience. It’s a continually gripping film with plenty of nail-biting suspense. It’s a bleak, yet somewhat hopeful, reminder of our mortality. Even in the face of insurmountable odds, even when there is no hope, humans can muster the will to keep fighting, and when the fighting fails, we can muster the will to accept our fate, to accept the inevitable, and to not fear the end.