'The Grey' is ugly, ho-hum survival movie that could have been great

January 30, 2012|By BOB GARVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Liam Neeson prepares to fight off wolves in a scene from "The Grey."
AP Photo/Open Road Films, Kimberley French

I’ve spent the last few weeks complaining about the lame release slate in January and February. These months are regarded as a dumping ground for weak new movies that would never survive in a busier movie season like summer or the holidays.

That said, I did think we might be in for a rare bright spot in “The Grey.” It’s an ugly movie about wilderness survival, and I figured a movie like that is a tough sell at any time of year. It might as well come out in January when the star power of Liam Neeson can win a weekend’s box office where people are desperate for anything halfway decent. I thought maybe “The Grey” was a good movie that was simply short on marketing potential.

Alas, my optimistic theory proved fruitless. “The Grey” is both unappealing and uncompelling.

Neeson stars as a mopey wolf expert for an oil company in Alaska. His job is to shoot any wolves that are making a beeline for the workers. After a last-minute decision not to commit suicide, he joins the others on a plane headed back to wherever they call home. The plane goes down. Now Neeson and a small group of fellow survivors are stranded in the middle of nowhere and the nearby wolves feel threatened by their “invasion.” With only crude spears for armament, the group tries to make it to safety with full knowledge that they themselves are being hunted.

The wolves are fearsome enemies, but it’s hard to take the “man vs. nature” theme seriously when they behave like typical horror movie slashers. That is to say that they strike only when the plot decides that we haven’t seen a wolf attack for a while, and it’s always during an otherwise quiet scene so the movie can give us a cheap scare.

On the upside, I don’t have to question the wolves’ motives for attacking like I did with the werewolves from “Underworld” in my review last week. “Scared and hungry” is a simple explanation, but a sufficient one when the characters aren’t supposed to be super-intelligent.

As for the humans, their story isn’t terribly interesting. Neeson is good for a halfway decent performance as always (the best scene of the movie is one where he talks a fatally wounded passenger through his final moments), but his fellow survivors are way short on personality. It’s hard to see them as anything more than inevitable victims.

One element I found interesting but depressing is that there’s very little talk of getting rescued or going back to their lives. It’s as if they’re all staying alive for the sake of staying alive. The film tries to be deep about it, asking us to ponder issues such as life and its purpose.

My simple answer is that nobody wants to end up as a frozen corpse or wolf food.

“The Grey” is at least a competent film, which is more than I can say about many of the films released in January and February. But it is by nature an unpleasant film, the kind that only works if it’s extraordinarily well done and compels you to brave its subject matter.

Instead, “The Grey” has a moderate quality that is a notch above everything else that’s been released recently, but by itself isn’t terribly entertaining.

There is still hope of getting some good movies this season. The Academy Award nominations were announced this past week and both “The Artist” and “The Descendants” did very well. They should be getting wider releases soon and then you can treat yourself to two of 2011’s most exceptional films.

Two stars out of five.

“The Grey” is rated R for violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language. Its running time is 117 minutes.

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