Saturday, May 26, 2012

"The Grey"

Blurb on cover of the DVD jacket:

"Liam Neeson stars as the unlikely hero Ottway in this undeniably suspenseful and powerful survival adventure.  After their plane crashes into the remote Alaskan wilderness, a roughneck group of oil drillers is forced to find a way back to civilization.  As Ottway leads the injured survivors through the brutal snow and ice, they are relentlessly tracked by a vicious pack of rogue wolves that will do anything to defend their territory.  Adrenaline-fueled, action-packed and loaded with some of the most intense and brutally realistic attack scenes ever filmed, The Grey is being hailed as 'a thriller you can sink you teeth into!' (The Washington Post)"

I'm from Alaska, and as such am very critical about movies and/or books that have anything to do with Alaska.  Will the flick support stereotypes about Alaska?  Will it make us Alaskans look like country backwater bums liked "Snow Dogs" did?

The Good
The story itself is definitely realistic - plane goes down in the wilderness, pack of men is hunted by pack of wolves who are defending their turf, men are taken out by wolves and forces of nature one by one until Ottway is the only one left.  In trying to get away from the wolves and reach civilization, he walks right into the wolves' den and faces down the alpha male.  Philosophical musings and thoughts about God and the afterlife are woven into the dialog in a way that will stick with viewers (especially Ottway's outburst at God near the very end) and make them think later, which I appreciate.

The conditions of snow and ice mentioned on the jacket cover were portrayed very well, and I appreciated how stranded the men actually were after their plane went down.  In case that sounds super sadistic, let me explain - in many movies when people in a plane go down, or otherwise get lost in the wilderness, they are found too easily.  Either rescuers find them in a once-in-a-lifetime shot in the dark chance discovery that did not take long enough, or one of their people is so closely related to MacGyver that they are able to make their way to civilization within a few days when the reality is that several hundred miles of terrain would take weeks to cross.  So yes, I appreciated that there were realistically few signs of civilization in "The Grey".

The characters were exceptionally well fleshed out.  Granted, there were not many characters to flesh out, and the number of characters dwindled such throughout the flick that there were fewer backstories to reveal, but still - enough details were added to the characters and they were portrayed in such a way that viewers are led to care about the men as individuals who each had their own thing to live for.  One man wanted to get home to his daughter.  Another did not want his last "f***" to be the husky prostitute who gave him "the clap like it was gift-wrapped".  Ottway's story in particular, told through glimpses of his interactions with a woman I presume was his wife, is particularly compelling as we basically meet him as his suicide attempt is halted by the sound of a wolf howling.  Ironically, a wolf saved his life early in the film and then we are unsure whether he lives or dies in the end.  (Random note: while I do not like gratuitous swearing in any flick (there is a movie I have stopped in the middle because I could bear the swearing no more), I did appreciate that this film contained a realistic amount of swearing.  Sorry, but a group of guys stranded in the middle of nowhere is not going to have the least colorful language in the planet, nor is every other word going to be made of four letters.  Having hung out with mostly guys my entire life, this film contained the perfect balance of realistic cussing.)

As is usual, the characters annoyed me because they made poor choices - getting separated from the group and hence getting eaten by a wolf, not using plane wreckage as snowshoes (this would have sped their travel across the snow), etc - but I suppose I cannot expect everyone to be an expert at wilderness survival.  : )  (In truth, in the same situation I would likely die.)

Casting was fantastic in this movie.  Of course, there was Liam Neeson and it is hard for him to do poorly, but the other cast members, none of whom I recognized, were very good as well.  I believed each and every one of them, and it was not obvious in any of them that they were acting.  I hope some of the unknowns in this film get picked up by other productions.

Background music was not overbearing here either, and was in fact barely noticeable.  I definitely appreciated this, because in some flicks I feel as though loud noises are included to distract a viewer from a poor screenshot or mis-delivered line.  However, here I was able to focus on the action.

The Bugly (Bad/Ugly)
I nitpicked throughout this movie about little details that were off, but here were some of the major buglies:

First, we know from the back cover of the movie (which I usually read before watching a movie if I am viewing a DVD) that the men on the plane are oil workers.  This means they likely work on rigs on the North Slope of Alaska and work a several-weeks-on-several-weeks-off kind of schedule.  The Slope is far away from where most workers live, so they are taking a plane back to Anchorage to go home for some time off.  Unless you already know something about the Slope, the movie itself does not tell you the men are oil workers.  Unless I missed something, which is entirely possible, all the movie itself tells you is that Ottway has been hired to kill wolves to protect the rest of the men as they go about their job, the men were in some kind of camp, and they were on a plane trying to go somewhere.  Sorry, but I think we should know from the movie that they are oil workers...not just from the DVD jacket.

Second, after the plane crash Ottway wakes up in a snow drift several hundred yards away from the plane.  How did he get there?  If he was thrown, I would have expected there to be some kind of injury.  Also, there was no debris around him that I could was just him in a lonely bank and he had to scramble to get back to the wreckage.  There should have been debris.

Third, there is a scene where Ottway has sticks and is telling the men to whittle the tips into sharp points and attach shotgun shells to the ends with tape one of them is carrying to fashion a kind of boomstick.  Alright, that works just fine and I appreciated that he took the time to specify that the tip of the stick had to be against the primer of the shotgun shell (even though I am not sure that one could by hand provide enough force to make the primer explode).  However, when one breaks off sticks - or even just finds them fallen in the woods - the ends are jagged.  The ends of these sticks had obviously been sawed.  They didn't have a saw.  FAIL.

Fourth, when one is sitting by a campfire in -10F conditions, one can see one's breath.  There is a campfire scene where the men are bonding by telling each other personal stories.  That is all well and good, but the only time you see the men's breath is when Ottway is making a point about being able to see his breath.  The fire they were sitting by was not big enough that the ambient air temperature was warm enough for breath fog to have been nil....we should have been able to see their breath.

Fifth, there is a scene where a man jumps across a chasm to catch a tree on the other side so that they can attach a line so that the rest of the men can get across.  Of course, Murphy strikes this endeavor, and when his weight catches the line, it breaks (after all, it was clothing strung together with some rope and one of the knots came undone).  Another man is able to catch the end, but he is hanging on the edge of an ice cliff...which subsequently breaks and threatens to dump him into the chasm below.  There were several things wrong with this scene.  1) When the line first broke, only one of the three men standing on the cliff went to grab the end.  When it was caught by one man, the other two - though very close by - took an extremely long time to react, way longer than was realistic.  2) When the ice cliff breaks, the man who is laying on it, holding the line that the jumper is attached to, slowly slides forward.... seemingly to his doom.  Sorry, but when a man + gear is on the end of a line, weighing at least 200 pounds, and the ground beneath his anchor suddenly gives way, that anchor will topple over into the abyss very quickly...not do a slow slide that allows the slow reactors in the background time to grab his legs.  Argh.

Okay, I'll quit nitpicking.  At least this movie did not have a skunk in it - a different movie based in Alaska that I saw had a skunk in the middle of the wilderness...the only skunk in Alaska is in the darn zoo!  : )

I really liked this movie.  The violent scenes between man and wolf were well done (though I wonder how they did some of them without harming an actual wolf), the portrayal of Alaska was more accurate than in many films, the acting was superb, and the plot was not overly predictable.  Though it was kind of a version of "The Edge" with wolves instead of bears, it has enough uniqueness to be a good flick.  Though there were some glaring problems, noted above, one had to be really looking for them to be a bother.  Well, the stick thing was kind of obvious, but still.

On a 1 to 10 scale rating, I'd give this movie a well-earned 7.

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