Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Grey

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A group of oil drillers on a plane ride home, crash in the arctic tundra, where they become hunted by a vicious pack of wolves.
About: Many probably know Carnahan as the upstart testosterone-filled director who broke out with “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane.” He went on to make the well-received “Narc,” which led to a pre-couch-hopping call from Tom Cruise to become the next director in his Mission Impossible super-franchise. Things fell apart, Carnahan followed up with the all-over-the-place dud “Smokin’ Aces,” and that promising future seemed to be slipping away. Thank God for the ghost of Mr. T, because Carnahan jumped onboard the director-for-hire train and took on The A-Team. It was there that he apparently pitched Bradley Cooper his long gestating project about a group of plane crash victims trying to survive a pack of wolves. Cooper signed on and the movie is apparently a go (though where in the Bradley Cooper go-picture cycle it is, I’m not sure).
Writers: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on the short story ‘Ghost Walkers’ by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers)
Details: 120 pages (6/21/07)

Hell fucking yeah.

Plane crashes.


People trying to survive.

The Grey is a dark eerie thriller that deals with the most primal of human experiences: survival. Oh, and it does so in a way that puts all recent survival stories to shame. Because this script rocks.

We’re in the Arctic Tundra. An oil drilling station up in the coldest regions of the world. When your company gets up near the equator, you don’t exactly attract the lawyers and doctors of the world. You get the ex-cons, the fugitives, the murderers. The people no one else will accept.

In the middle of it all is Ottway, a sad, frustrated, conflicted man who it so pains to be away from the woman he loves, that he simply can’t take it anymore. Combine that with being out in this vast depressing ice desert, stuck with all these cro-magnums, sunlight peeking out two hours a day at most, and you understand why he’s out here, away from the other men, with a gun to his head, considering ending it all. But something…some unknown force…brings him back from the edge. He’ll live. At least for one more day.

Lucky for him and the others, the company is flying the team back to Anchorage for a little recuperation. So everyone jumps on a 737, and they take off into a blizzard. Ottway drifts off, but less than an hour into the flight, there’s a large jolt, a twist, a turn, metallic wheezing, and the plane goes tumbling down. Twisted metal, fire, fuselage everywhere. Almost everyone’s dead. Just a handful of men survive. There’s Ottway, Luttinger (a bear of a man), Flannery (a sort of Bill Paxton type from Aliens) and Pike (the troublemaker), along with a few others.

Nobody’s able to keep their shit together. They are out in the middle of the North fucking Pole, employees of a company they know is too cheap to send out a rescue team to find them. But the only one who understands the true severity of their situation is Ottway, and he quickly takes charge. They need to set up a fire and they need to find food. Fast. As the others gradually slide out of shock, they begin to notice they have visitors. Wolves. Off in the distance. Staring. Pacing. Observing.

But these aren’t ordinary wolves. They’re bigger. More viscious. Unafraid. A genetic result of being forced to hunt bigger pray out here in the middle of nowhere. So they’re stronger. And they’ve never seen humans before. So they’re not afraid of them. They simply see them as another animal species invading their territory. And for that reason, they need to be killed.

And that’s exactly what they start doing. Instantly picking off our men, one by one. At first they wait for them to walk off alone, to go the bathroom. But soon they’re impatient with even that approach, and literally run into the group, grabbing their prey, and pulling the helpless men back to the pack, as they’re chewed apart alive.

It would be over much quicker if it weren’t for Ottway. He’s been out in the middle of nowhere before. He’s hunted animals. Wolves in fact. He understands them. And he’s their only chance at survival.

And the assessment is that out here, they’re toast. They need to get to the forest, where they’ll have cover. But if dealing with hungry killer wolves weren’t bad enough, the lawless Pike disagrees with nearly everything Ottway suggests. Pike wants to be the leader here, and his continual insubordination is threatening to kill them from the inside before they’re killed from the outside.

There are no big plot twists here. No surprises. No trickery or unique structure. It’s a very simple story. Group of Men vs. Group of Wolves. Battle for survival. And what makes it so compelling, is that the men are so grossly overmatched. They’re out of their element, starving, freezing, and the only one that understands the gravity of their predicament is a man that just yesterday wanted to end his life.

What I loved about The Grey was just how realistic it all was. You could feel the ice on your fingers. You could hear the wind kicking up the snow. And Carnahan and Jeffers supplement it with an “in your face” style full of italics and underlines. Normally that stuff annoys me, but here, it feels appropriate, as it embodies the immediacy and second-to-second struggle these men are going through.

And there’s something about Ottway that just makes you root for him. I love characters who want to end their life, only to be thrown in a situation where they must fight for it. Outside of the irony, it’s moving to see that moment a character realizes just how valuable life is. Ottway spends much of the opening speaking in voice over and his words are so real, so intense, they pierce you, bonding you with this man forever. As the odds become stacked higher and higher against him, you pray that beyond all reason, he’ll somehow find a way to survive, to find shelter, to find help. And yet, instinctively, you know no one’s coming to help him.

And then of course there’s the wolves. Oh the wolves. They’ll do what no other wolves would dare do. Run right into the pack, snatch you away, and chow on your throat as they drag you back to their kill den. This ain’t the French-kissing Taylor Lautner kind of wolf, nosiree. But the most terrifying of them all is the Alpha Male, the wolf that’s even bigger than all the other abnormally large wolves. Watching him observe these men from a distance, seeing eyes that almost appear intelligent, plotting, is what brings the reality of this situation to bear. And one of the cooler threads was the parallel between the alpha male relationship to the wolves in the wolfpack, and the alpha-male relationship to the humans in the human pack. As we jump back and forth, we realize these carnivores aren’t that much different from each other. It was all just done to perfection.

If there’s something that can be improved, it’s probably the secondary characters. Outside of Flannery and Pike, none of the other men stood out. And there’s a lot of places you can go with a pool of murderers and ex-cons. I thought that could’ve been fun to explore. But this is a 2007 draft, so I have a feeling they may have addressed that issue. Still, I hope they haven’t messed with anything else. This was an intense harsh thrill-packed ride from cover to cover, and I think it works perfectly the way it is.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Voice over is one of those things that, unless you know what you’re doing, you just shouldn’t fuck with. But when done well, it does a great job of quickly connecting you to the main character – helping you identify with and care for them in a manner that’s just not possible without hearing their thoughts. I dare you to read the opening 10 pages, hear Ottway’s voice over, and not sympathize with him, not want to root for him.