The alpha wolf challenges the Liam Neeson character, Ottway, and other plane crash survivors in the Joe Carnahan thriller "The Grey." (Kimberley French/Open Road Films)
Just as California gets its first wild wolf in almost 80 years, along comes “The Grey,” the new thriller opening Jan. 27 in which Liam Neeson leads a bunch of very out-of-place oilfield dudes in Alaska who are hunted and killed by wolves.Upside: Nature wins. Downside: Wild wolves are portrayed as cunning man-eaters. Maybe bad timing for our new wolf, known by the designation OR-7.
“It’s fictional. That kind of movie is completely designed for thrill and does not reflect reality,” says Kim Delfino, California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, whose group has taken a keen interest in OR-7. “It’s highly, highly unusual for wolves to ever attack people.”
Carnahan himself wants the wolves to be seen in the right light. Talking by phone and email from Toronto, he says: “I never intended [the wolves] to be the aggressor; I look at them as the defenders. I think these guys are in a very territorially sensitive place. [The humans] were trespassing and intruders.”
Aggressors or defenders, these wolves are taking no shorts. A few minutes into the movie we see why Neeson’s character, Ottway, is there: As men work on a pipeline in a rugged snowy landscape, a big gray wolf comes streaking in out of the storm at astonishing speed to attack the men, and Ottway guns it down. The threat is established: These wolves are on the offensive.
“I am absolutely an animal activist and have a dog and three horses, and this was never in any way to suggest that wolves are vicious animals,” said Carnahan. “But they are part of nature, but they’re not different in the movie from the blizzard, from the river, from the cliffside. For all its beauty, it’s also very hostile and unforgiving.”
Indeed, from the very first scene, the Alaskan sky is always dark, the snow is howling, a river half-frozen and opaque. Carnahan, who also co-wrote the movie with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, makes the environment into a character ruthlessly hostile to humans.
On a flight home, the snow takes down a plane full of the oilfield roughnecks. All but seven are killed. The very first night, the wolves appear, and, one by one, the men are picked off. Ottway, who is a wildlife biologist stationed with the men for their protection, has a special relationship with the pack, especially the alpha, and the ensuing hunt is clearly personal for both man and wolf.
Carnahan says he learned a lot about wolves from the books of Shaun Ellis, who lived as a low-ranking member of a Rocky Mountain wolf pack for 18 months, eating off their kills and studying their behavior. He also spent a considerable amount of the time with the real wolves used in the film, which were trained by legendary animal wrangler Gerry Therrien. That pack was dominated by an alpha female who, Carnahan says, was fierce about keeping the others in line.
These oilfield characters are not men we like. That was deliberate, Carnahan says, as he meant to point out that industries like petroleum extraction are often interlopers in pristine — if hostile — environments. Very quickly, the behavior of the survivors devolves into a snarling pack, with the men fighting for dominance. The wolves are imbued with more dignity.
In one key scene, the men manage to kill a wolf, and one of the least-likable characters, Diaz, mutilates it and throws out a challenge to the wolves, saying, “You’re not the animals, we’re the animals!” This elicits a chilling response from the wolves, who send up a rising howl from the dark in which all we see is their breath illuminated by moonlight.
Which is an indication of how it’s going to go. The wolves are better adapted. Carnahan says to anyone who thinks he has demonized the wolves: “Look, the wolves do OK in the movie. If it was a football game it would be like 41 to 3! [laughs] They do all right.”
Defenders of Wildlife and many other animal advocates hope that California will celebrate having a wild wolf. Carnahan feels his film also has an environmental message.
"I don't think the film will make people fear wolves, but I'd like to make them respect wolves and by extension, nature itself more,” he says. “I'd like the movie to remind people that we're just visitors here, and the defiling and destruction of the natural world puts us at odds with our environment and we're ultimately provoking a power that is supreme, overwhelming and merciless. Look no further than the tsunami that struck Japan for an example of exactly how ferocious nature can be."