A few years ago a bunch of friends and I went to see, The Grey. That’s the movie where Liam Neeson and a group of roughneck oilfield workers crash land in the Alaskan wilderness and they have to fight for their lives against a pack of hungry wolves. I thought it was great. So, I was surprised when we were chatting outside the theater afterwards, and I found that several of my friends hated it. This difference in opinion has become a years-long, good-natured argument between Zack and myself. Any time I express a suspect opinion about something Zack will smile and say, “Yeah, but you like The Grey.”
So, with the entirety of my credibility on the line, I want to use this space as an opportunity to defend my opinion, and explain why I think The Grey is a good movie. However, my full defense must wait for a second post. I need to address the problems with the film first.
There are many valid criticisms. First, this movie is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is bleak and violent, punctuated by surprisingly visceral and intense death scenes. Second, there are certainly some very dumb and inexplicable plot points. For example, the group flees the pursuing wolves into a wooded area. There is no reason that this stand of trees should act as an impenetrable wolf barrier, but somehow it does. This serves the story by providing a break in the action during which the audience can catch its breath and the characters can bond around the fire while having a surprisingly philosophical conversation. Then, somehow, the wolves solve the riddle of the trees and attack once more. Logic is not friendly to this series of events.
But the most serious objection to The Grey is the one I can’t actually defend, particularly as a conservationist. That is the demonification of the wolves. The wolves in The Grey bear little resemblance to real wolves. They are relentless, almost malevolent killing machines. In reality, the violence between wolves and humans has been wildly, and tragically asymmetric. There are only a handful of recorded fatalities due to wild wolf attacks in North America. Wolves have been extirpated from the vast majority of the United States, murdered out of fear and ignorance.
The unfair representation of wild animals in film is not a new issue. Probably the most famous example is Jaws, one of the most celebrated movies is all time. The shark in Jaws is vengeful and maniacal, and is responsible for many unfounded fears about sharks in general. But Jaws has also inspired a generation of scientists and conservationists to learn more about the real mysterious lives of sharks. The author of the novel Jaws, Peter Benchley, became a life long advocate of shark conservation.
The loss of wolves from any landscape is a tragedy. There are enormous ecological consequences, but also cultural ones. Aldo Leopold writes movingly about participating in the death of a wolf and the loss of the wolf to the mountains of New Mexico in his essay Thinking Like a Mountain. Fortunately wolves are making a comeback. Re-introductions in Yellowstone and Central Idaho have been wildly successful (at least from the perspective of those in favor of such actions). Packs borne from the Idaho reintroduction have now ranged down through Eastern Oregon, and for the first time in 70 years a wolf has returned to California. That wolf, OR-7, has now successfully mated and raised several pups.
In the last month a new pack has been recorded in North Eastern California. I think it is important to celebrate these conservation successes. We are living in exciting times where the rewilding of portions of the Earth is happening, sometimes at a surprising rate. Among many of the serious concerns and fears we have in the conservation community, there are many causes for optimism too.
I doubt that viewers of The Grey will be inspired to fascination with wolves in the way that Jaws inspired fascination with sharks and the sea. But, at least, I hope that the unrealistic portrayal of wolves has not really hurt the cause of wolf conservation either. Liam Neeson has been an advocate for conservation, perhaps he will speak for the wolves, too.
[Tune in next time for a discussion of why I actually think The Grey is a good movie]
It might be science, it might be nons(ci)ense, but it still smells.