The Grey isn’t about the wolves. That’s probably a positive since nearly all of it’s wolf-based material borders on the ludicrous. It’s not a case of being “unrealistic” so much as the animal actions, going so far as to create a full on hierarchy to extract revenge, dim the survivalist elements. Jaws 4 was more credible, and there, the great white was swimming in fresh water.
Grey peppers these British Columbia locales with Liam Neeson and a handful of other stock, one dimensional, soon-to-be-jerky types. There’s the oppressive jerk, the funny one, etc., enough to forge ahead on a script that questions life while bravely daring to delve into the realm of higher powers. It gives the film a richer backbone, or rather one that elevates Grey above the menagerie of cold weather survival actioners on merit alone, i.e., Cliffhanger.
The thing is, no matter how somber it becomes and how well defined the digital wolves are in their camera presence (going beyond snarling close-ups), Grey is stupid. It’s incompetency disguised as something meaningful, the worst kind of contrived script work that boggles the mind as to how it came to be. It’s not the realism, but rather how the film portrays its own side of that realism. Base logic feels made up as it goes, conversations never stopping to build character until the hour mark. Grey has to explain each and every wolf action because they make no sense otherwise.
Characters travel through a consistent snow, temperatures borderline intolerable for human life, and one of the crew -all survivors of a grandly scaled plane crash- comes down with a sickness. He’s coughing up a proverbial lung, clearly a sign of his final days, and despite this, Grey needs to explain why he’s sick. The film ditches its chances to enrich or build this ragtag crew of survivors around a campfire, because someone in this group happens to be an expert on altitude sickness.
The same goes for Liam Neeson, known here as Ottway. He’s a hired gun for an unnamed oil company, a pinpoint sniper who protects the crews in the wilderness from the wildlife… or wolves more precisely. How convenient he survived the crash. That’s the type of element one can forgive, and the material tries to layer his backstory. Those elements stick because they don’t go too far, and instead offer glimpses without direct answers. Neeson himself may be playing to type, the gruff, quiet one with a sharp edge in his personality, but there’s something backing it. There’s a reason for him to be who he is.
Everyone else, not even metaphorically, are thrown to the wolves. Their purpose is to be munched on or meet some harrowing fate the audience will struggle to relate to outside of the humanity. But, to give credit where due, Grey can be unpredictable if it’s not creating such blatant foreshadowing. Wolf attacks are impossibly precise or even random, enough to create unsettling feelings during the downtime between action set pieces. You begin to expect the unexpected, creating that on edge device, which softens the less patient audience members need for a kill.
Then, it collapses upon itself by foreshadowing all, Neeson laying out a death plan as he questions health concerns related to a rope climb. Now, the audience can do nothing but focus their attention on the obvious while waiting for the inevitable, instead of making it a point during the climb itself within the camerawork. All of that time spent to create an unsettling unpredictability falls to the wayside when Grey decides to pander to the audience instead of working them alongside a narrative.
The Grey? More like, The Grain. Much of the material feels retro-fitted for added grit, not shot in this manner. There’s a “buzzy” quality that brings up a look of heavy 16mm footage, but with another glaze of digitally added grain on top of it. Kudos then to the Universal compression team to holding down the fort; Grey rarely shows signs of being encoded. Trouble spots are few, namely early as the blizzard reduces visibility to almost nill. The rest of the film looks as intended with a thick layer of accentuated film texture.
Snow keeps the image hearty, brightening the daylight, held back only by the color grading that steers the imagery blue. Rarely do the elements keep their naturally stocky contrast. It doesn’t seem like an attempt tone down the whites so much as it is to minimize the shock to the eyes of a theater going audience. One can imagine the blinding effect such a brightly lit screen could have coming from the dimness of night in a darkened theater hall. That said, that glaze of blue does lend The Grey a teal/orange veneer that grates on seekers of natural primaries.
Blues will push into the black levels too, an element that doesn’t find a comfortable groove. Washed out and flat, blacks will never reach their deepest point, squandering their chance to showcase some oomph. While the effect will negate some of the depth, it never shows noise in those exposed areas. Shadow detail is, by default, spot on as well.
Wilderness is portrayed with an edge from the resolution, scenery brilliant in how well resolved it is. Even when covered with the intentional noise, Grey whips up some expansive vistas of the British Columbia locations. In close, texture isn’t squandered either, facial detail kept firm when the lens moves in tight. There’s no shortage of high-fidelity material to soak up.
The Grey begins almost silent, with deep narration pouring from the center channel. Then, it’s as if the track explodes with sound, moving into a rough & tumble bar, blaring music and filling the space. That’s the sign of what’s about to happen to the home theater.
Reference is tossed around with regularity concerning action fare, The Grey a part of the genre but never overcooked. It’s use of audio, outside of the enormity of a plane crash which is exhilarating work, is subtle. The score will bottom out fiercely to signal dread, leaving the whipping winds that follow ominous. On that note, The Grey arguably contains the greatest winds committed to home audio. Not only do they elevate the weather, they force the listener into the fold because they’re an aural part of the elements that don’t let up.
Winds are not unlike the wolves which slink around, snarling in the surrounds or howling in tandem to one up each other in each positional. The mix has a way of virtually telling an audience not only that a wolf is behind them, but how far that wolf is. There are layers to their locations that spruce up what could have been a simple matter of placement. Packs of wolves will reach a circling point with numbers, each planted into the audio mix at a specific level, not just a direction. Absolutely flawless.
Despite an explosive box office, Grey whimpers as it hits Blu-ray with a commentary track (director/co-writer Joe Carnahan, editors Roger Barton, Jason Hellmann), six deleted scenes (22:25 total), D-Box support, and BD-Live access. Meh.