All time favourite wilderness movies (#2 in an occasional series…)

Ah, back to this campfire game. (Actually, I wish I was arguing about movies around a campfire, instead of spending this week moving apartments – such fun…)  Anyway, amongst friends and family, the choice this time has divided opinions. I really like it (it’s on your all time favourite list PlaidCamper – of course you like it), but I don’t know that this is strictly a wilderness movie, it’s perhaps more of an action survival flick, or even an eco-horror parable. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and I think it works at a number of levels. The movie? Oh yeah, (this is like a teaser trailer), the movie is The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan, 2012). 

 Is something hiding in there?

Never mind all that stuff about it working at a number of levels, The Grey stands out for me because of the winter settings, and a fine performance from Liam Neeson. Much of the movie was shot near Smithers, BC, and, as in any good wilderness movie, the settings and weather behave like additional characters, providing greater drive to the narrative. Liam Neeson is suitably grizzled and gruff, entirely believable as a person who has reached the end of his emotional tether, not angry but exhausted, yet girding himself for a final effort to help his coworkers survive their predicament.

I mentioned above that the story could be read as an eco-horror tale. There was plenty of criticism aimed at the film makers for their depiction of wolves. Having survived a terrifying plane crash in a frozen wilderness, the characters are preyed on by a pack of enormous wolves who pick off survivors one by one in a series of gruesome attacks, hunting the humans as they look for a means of escape and a return to civilization. This is a familiar formula to horror/action movie fans, along the lines of the crew being preyed on in the original Alien movie, or the National Guard soldiers lost in the bayou in Southern Comfort. 

 Very grey…

The wolf depiction is unrealistic, particularly the sheer size of the creatures. Really they are designed to represent all that scares many city dwellers when they think about wilderness – wolves as the other or unknown. The movie makers have exaggerated the wolves to heighten audience fears; they’re not making a realistic documentary style statement about wolves. Treat the movie as humans vs. nature, in the tradition of Jaws or Grizzly (you can’t take that one too seriously!) and others in that vein, and you’ll be suitably entertained. Are the wolves simply nature taking revenge on resource greedy humanity? (The characters are oil riggers heading off for some down time away from the drill site). There are many deaths in the movie, and some are as a result of the environment – not all are down to the wolves – is this nature fighting back?

 Nature always wins…

I’ve always enjoyed stories with wolves, or about the mythology of wolves. As an impressionable teenager, I saw Neil Jordan’s movie The Company of Wolves. He was inspired by Angela Carter’s revisionist version of Little Red Riding Hood in her short story collection The Bloody Chamber: “Beware men whose eyebrows meet!” Mine do, although I don’t howl at the moon (often, unless having dealings with lawyers or mortgage brokers – I know, I know, I should let it go). The same impressionable teenager enjoyed The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, the original Wolfman with Lon Chaney, and reading Silver Bullet by Stephen King. Wild creatures lurking in dark places. I was a sensitive boy. So perhaps there is a very loose thread running from those earlier stories I enjoyed through to The Grey, which may explain why I am drawn to it beyond the wintry settings.

I also think that, for an out and out action and entertainment survival film, The Grey has a surprisingly philosophical thread; what does it mean to die, and is the manner of your death and how you accept it a reflection of your life? Is there a time to fight and a time to concede, and can that be graceful? In between the action and horror, there are moments of stillness, where the characters contemplate their mortality and chances of survival. The relatively thoughtful approach raises the movie above cliche and stereotype. 

 Be graceful

Yes, it’s possibly preposterous, macho, unrealistic, and somewhat formulaic – it’s all there for a fan of action: chases, escapes, tough dialogue, a plane crash, fights and confrontations aplenty, and yet…with the added dimensions of beautiful scenery, Neeson’s excellent performance, and an above average script with some depth, I think this is a little better than the usual fare.

I’ve yet to see a wolf in the wild. I’d dearly love to one day, from a respectful distance and with a better understanding of what they are as magnificent creatures in their proper context – and without my teenage impressions! 

So, there you have it – a fairly recent movie, unlike my previous choice (and I don’t think my mother has a crush on Liam Neeson – I’m not asking her – read the post about Jeremiah Johnson), but it’s in my list of favourites because I keep going back to it.

 Beautiful scenery

Have you seen The Grey? Is it as good as I think it is, or is it just another action movie? And what about the wolf depiction? Is it okay to get that wrong in the interests of telling a story? Do your eyebrows meet in the middle?

Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a story (or movie recommendation), and keep your guy ropes secure.