Warning: Spoiler(s) ahead. (Not really bad spoilers as would be the case if I told you that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) in “The Sixth Sense” is really a ghost who doesn’t know he’s a ghost. That’d be a wicked spoiler. The “spoilers” here are really nothing more than the untimely revelation of plot points.)
According to Wikipedia, “Promotion for The Grey, in part, targeted Christian groups by issuing a “film companion”, which highlighted the spiritual value of the film.” This really surprised me because the film is fundamentally anti-Christian. (I don’t mean that the way a Marilyn Manson album is anti-Christian but rather the way any work of art presenting a worldview fundamentally incompatible with the Christian worldview is anti-Christian.) Intrigued, I followed the link to the original article in “Variety”. Sure enough, the article states: “Open Road [the distributor] said it used several cross-promotional strategies to market the pic to Christian and various ethnic groups.” Go figure. To be sure, even if it is anti-Christian (or unChristian) in outlook, I do think that this film would be much more rewarding viewing for a church group than “Fireproof”. Let’s just hope that Granny has nodded off to sleep by the time that Ottway (Liam Neeson) unloads a truckload of four-letter invective at the Almighty near the end of the film.
So how is the worldview of the film “anti-Christian”?
The film, it seems to me, is a sort of allegory. It begins on an oil rig in the wilds of Northern Alaska. I take this rig to be representative of human civilization. This is not surprising since the harnessing of energy is core to the development of civilization. The harsh climate of Northern Alaska places into broad relief the precarious nature of our civilization. In that respect “The Grey” is orders more subtle and intriguing in depicting the human situation than a Hollywood mega-budget snooze-fest like “The Day After Tomorrow” with its wanna-be iconic Statue of Liberty arm jutting out of the ice.
It is easy to hold the delusion that our civilization is secure, and that is true of the oil workers as well. They are brought back to reality in a horrific moment when the plane they are riding to Anchorage takes a nose dive in the best airplane crash scene since “Castaway”. This really is a great sequence.
It is crucial to understand Ottway’s role in all this. To do so we must pay attention to a crucial moment on the airplane prior to the crash. At one point one of the characters makes a reference to Timothy Treadwell (though not by name) and the documentary about him, “Grizzly Man.” Some years ago Treadwell left southern California in search of meaning and went to Alaska to live with the Kodiak bears. He filmed them (and himself) for hours. He found meaning for his life in the bears. He thought they were his friends. He loved them. Then one of them ate him (off camera but with camera still rolling). The masterful documentarian Werner Herzog compiled some of this footage (mercifully not the horrific death, though he brilliantly incorporates it into the film just the same) into the documentary “Grizzly Man”.
Anyway, “The Grey” is presenting us with a clear contrast. Treadwell naively projected meaning onto the bears of Alaska and was destroyed by them. Ottway is not that foolish. He recognizes that the wolves he is linked with are cold predators. It is a struggle for survival, pure and simple. And yet, as the film ultimately reveals, there may not be much difference. Treadwell’s delusion leads him to be destroyed by the bears. But Ottway’s gritty realism still leads him to be killed by the wolves. Either way both end up dead.
“The Grey” depicts a ragtag group escaping the wreckage of the plane hopefully away from the lair of the wolves that are hunting them and toward civilization. In fact, the journey leads them directly into the lair of the wolves and to their inevitable destruction. One by one, the brutishness of nature and human mortality, as represented by the wolves in their tireless pursuit, takes down each of the men until only Ottway is left.
This brings us to the point where I hope Grandma is asleep. However, I suspect that the unrelenting blitzkrieg of f-bombs throughout the film would have emptied the room of the faint of heart long before that point. (How do you think oil rig workers would talk?) If Grandma is still there by that point she will see Ottway look up to the grey skies and cry out to God for help with an explosive, expletive-laced tirade. Predictably there is no answer, unless you call the revelation a shortwhile later that Ottway is about to die in a flurry of teeth and fur an answer.
In the final scene Ottway squares off against the Alpha wolf surrounded by a snarling pack of beasts. Methodically he smashes tiny liquor bottles and tapes the jagged edges to his fists. (Who needs brass knuckles when you’ve got glass knuckles?!) Ottway is the ultimate promethean figure, one who refuses to accept his inevitable fate without a fight. As the credits suddenly appear we realize that Ottway’s final demise, like that of Treadwell, was kept off camera. Perhaps looking the other way is the last dignity we can pay the man.
Regardless, as the credits began to role up the screen I couldn’t help but think of this famous passage from Bertrand Russell:
all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.