How easy is it to pitch a film like The Grey to audiences? All you have to say is, “Liam Neeson vs wolves” right? Make sure the trailer shows some scenes of Neeson getting down and dirty ready to scrap with the canis lupus, and the audience will come running. Judging by the fact it topped the US box office and how busy the early afternoon screening I attended was, I’d say it’s pretty easy. Sometimes you've just got to love the simplicity of ‘high concept’ films. Or maybe the distributor timed things right, believing that amidst all of the awards season mayhem audiences needed something a little less, serious? Like the recent release of Haywire, the timing is spot on.
Except The Grey isn’t quite as light or fun as the concept/trailer makes it out to be. In essence it’s a standard survival story - survivors of a plane crash somewhere in the inhospitable wilderness of the Arctic must struggle for their lives. But that’s not really their biggest problem. Where they have fallen is right in the middle of wolf territory and they have just become the prey. Man against the elements has become man against nature itself. The setting works very much in the films favour here. Environmental conditions such as the snow and wind heighten the desolation which plays into the strength of the hunters - you can’t always see the wolves but you know they’re there, watching, waiting in the daytime fog or the sheer blackness of night, their howls echoing all around. Create a disorientating environment and throw in something to be fearful of. It’s pretty basic but it works.
But what of the characters, do we care about them? Well, yes and no. Too many of them are thinly drawn, working in the Arctic because it’s away from normal society, but that’s all we know really, maybe the odd bit of personal info here or there. It seems we’re supposed to root for them because they are human, but it doesn’t really work like that. Neeson as the lead, who handily knows a bit about wolves and takes charge of this group of survivors, does a solid job as always. We get a bit more background on his character and he is battling the usual personal demons, although that doesn’t really matter when thrown into this situation, but it does interestingly allow Neeson's character the opportunity to vent his anger at religion & God a couple of times. I’m trying to figure out if it was around Batman Begins that he really started to take on this role of grizzled, raw, older action hero? Maybe it was. In the public consciousness it was Taken for sure, and he does it well, but I didn’t really see it coming from him.
So what haven’t I mentioned? Oh yes, Neeson actually fighting wolves. Well the actual fighting side of things is a bit lacking – The Grey really is more of an 'escape the hunters and try to survive' type of film, so don’t watch it expecting lots of man vs wolf sparring. Not that that’s a bad thing of course. I thought there was a successful mix of real and animatronic wolves used and I regularly had trouble telling what wasn’t real. It’s also worth mentioning that the plane crash was extremely well done and is definitely one of the scarier examples that I’ve seen in a film. One issue to note is that the film is far too long and really does drag at points, struggling somewhat to sustain interest throughout.
Overall The Grey is a solid slice of entertainment. It may not quite live up to what the trailer promises, but some impressive cinematography and sound design helps make it a mostly interesting film, albeit one that's not worth getting too excited about.