Survival horror isn't exactly a new genre. From John Carpenter's The Thing to Lord of the Flies and The Descent, these films often focus on unwitting strangers who gradually get picked off by predators, environmental disasters or, in some cases, each other. Joe Carnahan's The Grey (2012) doesn't paint an entirely original picture, but this unforgiving nail-biter does a good job of playing its cards right. It's a close cousin to films like 1997's The Edge: we've got a plane crash, aggressive wild animals and a harsh environment that's miles from civilization, for starters. Our pensive leader is John Ottway (Liam Neeson), and the men he's with are fellow workers for a prominent oil company. They're used to uncomfortable weather...but when their plane goes down in northern Alaska, survival is another matter entirely.
Clocking in at just under two hours, The Grey doesn't waste much time right out of the gate. Ottway and company are thrown into the violent Alaskan tundra inside of 20 minutes, while the remainder of the film shifts between ferocious action, character moments and the slow, numbing burn of suspense as they attempt to dig their way out. It's a formula that works more often than not; even during the surprisingly restrained third act, The Grey rarely takes the easy way out. There's very little relief during the film's 118-minute lifespan---and by continuously stripping away a false sense of security, The Grey creates a slightly more authentic, engaging atmosphere than your average Hollywood survival flick.
One odd criticism of The Grey stemmed from its portrayal of the wolves that stalk our survivors, as if no story ever took liberties with the behavior of non-human characters. If there's one nagging problem with The Grey, it's the persistent flashbacks to Ottway's past: they don't dominate the film by a long shot, but each successive one tends to cheapen those that came before it. These flashbacks are meant to provide a small measure of comfort (or in some cases, exposition), but The Grey works well enough when it focuses on the present. It's even better when we eventually learn a bit more about the other men in the group: we're only granted access to a small portion of their lives and personalities, but it feels like a perfect amount for a film that doesn't necessarily need more than one fully realized character.
Presented on Blu-Ray by Universal, The Grey holds up well on the small screen. We're blessed with a rock-solid technical presentation that preserves the film's formidable atmosphere...and though the extras are definitely on the thin side, what's here is of good quality. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, The Grey looks excellent given the source material. The film's stylized color palette and grainy appearance are translated perfectly, creating a raw, "you-are-there" presence from start to finish. Black levels are deep and consistent, close-ups reveal strong detail and textures, and no glaring digital problems could be spotted along the way. Overall, this fantastic 1080p transfer serves up an appropriately chilly atmosphere, so fans shouldn't find much to complain about. Just for the record, the included DVD copy is above average for a standard definition transfer.
Even better news: the included DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is even more impressive and ranks among the best I've heard this year. The film's wind-swept atmosphere provides the perfect excuse to show off rear channel activity and directional effects, but the dialogue remains as crisp and clear as possible. Music cues also add an expected amount of punch along the way, but it's the sporadic wolf encounters that manage to steal the show. Of course, it's not all about volume: The Grey's quieter, introspective moments offer a counterbalance that helps us appreciate both extremes. Optional English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature and half of the extras.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below in DVD form, menu designs for The Grey
are smooth and simple; on the Blu-Ray, they're organized in typical Universal style. Several trailers must be bypassed before the menu can be accessed. The 118-minute film has been divided into just under 20 chapters, no obvious layer change was detected and the Blu-Ray appears to be unlocked for region-free playback. This two-disc set is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase, which also includes a matching slipcover and Digital Copy redemption insert.
Not much to choose from here, but at least it's all quality stuff. Our main attraction is a partially sober Audio Commentary with director Joe Carnahan, editor Roger Barton and editor Jason Hellmann. Our three participants mostly play it straight, mixing in occasional back-patting camaraderie with a handful of interesting production stories. Things get rather vicious during the end credits, though, so be sure and stick around to hear what Carnahan really thinks about executive producer Bill Johnson.
Also here is a collection of six Deleted Scenes (1080p, 22:27), which mostly fall under the category of "minor character moments". These are definitely worth watching at least once, but it's pretty easy to see why they got cut: The Grey plays just fine at 118 minutes and doesn't need any more padding.
Of course, we also get the aforementioned DVD and Digital Copy of the film. The former resides on its own disc and includes the same bonus features, while the latter expires in just over a year.
The Grey has guts. Most survival films frequently abandon the darkness for sighs of relief or a comfy ending, but this remains bleak, uncompromising and brutal almost every step of the way. Neeson grounds the film with a perfect mix of authority, compassion and pathos, even if we don't get much time to care about the other guys. Universal's Combo Pack favors quality over quantity, pairing a rock-solid technical presentation with a few appropriate extras. It's a fantastic package if you're in the right mood, which makes The Grey worth a purchase for genre fans who don't belong to PETA. Recommended.
NOTE: The above captures were taken from the included DVD and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off and writing stuff in third person.