I’ve been somewhat inspired by I’m Into Survival, a horror movie blog by Joey Comeau of A Softer World, and Ethan’s The Best Films of Our Lives to comment on a couple movies that I’ve seen. The first movie I’m going to discuss is The Grey. It attracted my attention, and that of many others by a trailer that depicted Liam Neeson taping broken bottles to his hands and punching wolves (awesome).
Having seen it, I experienced some disappointment. I think there is something of a trend in movies about outdoor sports (and possibly all movies) in that they are made for an audience that has no knowledge of the subject matter. Examples include Vertical Limit, which was so absurd in its depiction of mountaineering that it developed a cult following, and Sanctum which mangled spelunking. It like the Karate Kid movies, which involve a kid learning Chinese martial arts when karate is Japanese. I don’t know why this happens, all these movies could have been vaguely realistic but actively choose not to be. The Grey is another one of these. It depicts a group of men returning home from work in the far north, including Liam Neeson who is hired by the oil company to kill wolves and spends all his time moping about his wife who left him. Their play crashes and they attempt to reach civilization through the frozen wilderness filled with inexplicably psychotic wolves.
I mention that The Grey is meant for an audience who are unfamiliar with the subject, because I am fairly familiar with real survival stories. I watch any survival movie in the context of real survival stories, mostly from two books: The Endurance and The Heart of the Ocean. The first is the story of Ernst Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole aboard the ship the Endurance and the second is the story of the whale-ship Essex. The Endurance was trapped in the ice, forcing Shackleton’s men to retreat home by dogsled and lifeboat. The Essex was rammed by a whale and sank in the pacific, leaving the crew to flee home by longboat. My father read The Endurance to me when I was a child and I listened to the story of the Essex on tape a few years later. Having been raised on fiction riddled with happy endings, I had no appreciation for Shackleton’s success. His entire crew survived. It was not until I was grounded by the sad, ugly tale of the Essex that I understood how impressive their survival was. Of the hundred something crew of the Essex, maybe five survived. Through stupidity and bad luck they died of hunger, disease, and exposure until they were finally reduced to drawing straws to choose their next meal. Ever since, any story of group survival is judged by these two stories of heroic success, complete with divine visitation, and tragic, dehumanizing failure.
The Grey had the unfortunate luck of also being compared to Never Cry Wolf, a book about a man researching wolves in the tundra of Canada. It is unfortunate that this comparison was made, because the wolves of The Grey are not even remotely lupin. They exist only as a vague bestial adversary. They exhibit a variety of unnatural behaviors. They hound the group of survivors for days, killing solely to reduce numbers, and howl constantly. Shots of the wolves are either indistinct or depict only the upper portion of the face, showing the eyes and upper lip. They are never shown not baring their teeth and snarling. Having read about the real animals that actually avoiding picking fights with everything that comes by, eat all that they kill, and aren’t that obsessively territorial, the movie was a bit jarring. Honestly, they were just wolf shaped raptors from Jurassic Park.
I did notice that the wolves were meant to be compared to the men. This is most blatantly demonstrated when they hear a wolf challenge the alpha male of the pack, shortly after Neelson’s character subdues his own competitor for authority. I wondered if the movie would go the route of 28 Days Later and depict the degeneration of humanity compared to a horde of dehumanized monsters. The wolves were certainly ascribed a variety of human qualities including the desire for revenge. On the other side of the equation, the comparison between the survivors and the wolves was among the most interesting parts of the movie. I started thinking of the group in terms of alpha male and followers.
Given the context with which I watch the movie, I was mostly impressed by the depiction of surviving in cold weather. The constantly quest for warmth and fire were well done. I was, however, constantly frustrated that they never ate, except for one wolf, and should have starved to death long ago. I suppose Liam Neelson’s already been in The Road, but those men would have resorted to cannibalism ages ago.
The movie however does redeem itself with one of the most realistic deaths I’ve ever seen in a survival movie. One of the survivors falls in the river and drown due to a combination foot entrapment and strainer. A foot entrapment is when your foot is trapped by rocks in a river in such a position that you can not get out and can’t breathe. A strainer is a tree or branch in the water that strains the contents of the water. The pressure of the current can hold a swimmer underneath a strainer indefinitely, drowning them. As a white water kayaking, strainers and foot entrapments are among the scariest things in the universe and remain the most likely ways that a human will die in a body of moving water.