When the debate in a Hollywood development meeting turns to the “stakes” of the film in question, they don’t get any better than life and death.
In most big studio movies that involve at least some characters not making it out alive, however, the characters at risk are often cops, soldiers, CIA agents, zombie hunters, or alien fighters. When they’re typical people like us, it’s more harrowing to realize that survival of the fittest means that some (the less fit) don’t survive.
The formula here involves stranding high profile, scenery-chewing actors in the wild and letting them find out just how big of a bitch Mother Nature can be.
In The Grey and The Edge, it’s Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Actors vs. Script. Both films put their protagonists in planes and crash them into the the harsh Alaskan wilderness where man is not necessarily the animal best suited to being around when the credits roll.
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works as a sharpshooter at an oil refinery in Alaska, “a job at the end of the world.” He is tasked to protect the workmen by shooting wolves, bears and other wild animals that threaten them. These workers are said to be “ex-cons, fugitives, drifters and assholes.” Society’s rejects, Ottway says — “men unfit for mankind.”
Ottway is haunted by memories of the past, a happy life with his wife who is no longer with him. On the verge of suicide, he finds an unexpected will to live when his small transport plane crashes, leaving only him and six other men alive. Their chances are bleak — they are injured, freezing, stuck in the wilds of Alaska without much hope of rescue, and they seem to have landed in the middle of the hunting ground of a pack of wolves. And these are not your average scared-of-humans wolves; they’re intelligent, ravenous, bloodthirsty creatures who are more than a little unhappy about the arrival of these intruders so close to their den. That first night one of the men, who has apparently never seen a survival flick, wanders off to take a leak and is promptly attacked and ripped to shreds.
As the only man with survival skills and an in-depth knowledge of wolves, Ottway quickly becomes the alpha male of a ragtag pack of survivors that includes Diaz, a violence-prone ex-con (Frank Grillo); Flannery (Joe Anderson); Hendrick (Dallas Roberts); Burke (Nonso Anozie); and Talget (a barely recognizable Dermot Mulroney).
The men must band together to survive, as the wolves circle ever closer.
Eccentric billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) accompanies his beautiful and much younger wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson), a fashion photographer named Bob Green (Alec Baldwin) and his team to a remote lodge in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. Charles is a quiet, highly intelligent man who is a font of knowledge, constantly spouting random facts from the many books he’s read. He’s also privately convinced that Mickey and Bob are lovers and are plotting to kill him and live off his fortune. Despite his fear that Bob plans to murder him, Charles flies farther north with Bob and the photographer’s assistant, Stephen (Harold Perrineau, who would later become intimately familiar with plane crash survival stories due to his time on Lost). When the party’s small seaplane crashes into a lake miles from their destination, the three men are left alone to find their way home. To make matters worse, they are being stalked by a massive bear (Bart from Grizzly Adams) with a bad attitude.
When it comes to thrills, The Grey has the edge on The Edge. The Liam Neeson vehicle includes one of the most terrifying plane crash sequences I’ve ever seen (seriously, if they showed this film on a plane, passengers would start to panic at the slightest bit of turbulence). These wolves are like furry ninjas — they appear out of nowhere, strike unseen and are able to cause white-knuckle anxiety even when they’re not onscreen. Director Joe Carnahan does a wonderful job of building the nerve-fraying suspense.
The film isn’t non-stop action, though. The script, by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, allows for quieter moments in which the men contemplate what it means to be alive, their own mortality, the existence of God and how to reconcile oneself to death. There’s humor too, as when the men stand around cooking the carcass of the one wolf they’ve managed to kill, and one of them mutters, “I’ve always been a cat person myself.” The Edge, too, has plenty of humor. One of my favorite moments is when Charles and Bob, desperate for food, gleefully catch a squirrel in a trap made of interwoven branches and leaves.
Anthony Hopkins does an excellent job as the quietly brilliant Charles in The Edge and, despite his age and bookishness, you can understand why he becomes the leader of the small group of survivors. Baldwin, too, does an admirable job as Bob, the somewhat sleazy fashion photographer who may have been planning to kill Charles but now depends on him for his own survival.
Neeson gives an inspired performance as The Grey’s haunted and suicidal Ottway, for whom the tragic accident provides the impetus for new resolve and will to live. Neeson’s Ottway is a commanding presence, and it is understandable why the men naturally look to him for leadership.
In The Edge, events aren’t so much foreshadowed as they are telegraphed. Everything the two men need to survive has been provided earlier in the film. Wasn’t it fortuitous that Charles just happened to be reading a book that would tell him exactly what he needed to know if he ever found himself stranded in the woods? Wasn’t it helpful that Bob gave him that knife as a birthday present, and his wife gave him a pocket watch whose hands could be used a compass needle? And how did those matches manage to stay dry in Bob’s pocket, despite being submerged in an icy lake for several minutes? Everything is a little too neat.
Where the pat certainty of the David Mamet script undermines a story that might otherwise be far more involving, the increasing feeling of inevitability works for the plot of The Grey. The straightforward nature of the latter’s plot paints a bleak and much more realistic picture — you know the characters are on a one-way flight to tragedy, but you want to go along for the ride anyway.
The Grey is bleak, relentless and nihilistic. It’s a meditation on death and reconciling oneself to it. And it’s fairly effective, but the film is not as deep as it thinks it is. The same goes for The Edge. Mamet’s script could have been developed into satire, an ironic take on the Man-vs.-Nature action flick, but director Lee Tamahori turns it into exactly what Mamet was trying to parody by treating the film as a straightforward adventure movie. And it’s an entertaining adventure movie at that, but it just doesn’t deliver as many thrills as the winner of this Smackdown, The Grey.