The Grey (Rewrite)

Author: Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Genre: Drama/Disaster
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 8
Characterization: 6
Writer’s Potential: 8

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Logline:

After surviving a plane crash, oil workers must struggle across the Arctic tundra — with a pack of bloodthirsty wolves hot on their trail.

Synopsis:

OTTWAY works in an oil camp with thousands of others, but he has a peculiar job. Stationed on the edge of the camp, his job is to watch for predatory animals (such as wolves) approaching the camp and kill them. He writes a letter to an unknown woman, explaining his job and his rather cynical feelings about it, and in flashback we see him about to commit suicide — when a huge bear nearly kills him. Ottway kills the bear before it can kill him. Instead of sending the letter he’s writing, Ottway tears it up. He gets on an oil-company plane to get to the camp, where a kid named FLANNERY sits next to him. He talks nonstop, so Ottway turns his back on him and naps. Flannery’s insulted. The plane flies into a storm, hits turbulence, starts going down.

Ottway wakes in the wreckage, immediately rushes out to help the others. Flannery made it, but he’s injured. So did LUTTINGER, so he and Ottway help carry Flannery away from the flaming wreckage. They pass another man, whose leg and arm have been cut off. He’s dying. HENRICK stands over yet another, whose gut is ripped open, blood flowing fast. PIKE, BURKE, and TALGET argue about the usefulness of a cell phone in the middle of nowhere. Ottway gathers these survivors and tries to organize a plan. He thinks they need to build a fire, then find food, then wait for daylight and start walking. The others argue with him, insisting they’ll be found. Ottway makes a compelling argument against them being found and points out the wives and children they all need to get back to. The only option is to follow his lead. They all help to build a fire. While gathering wood, three wolves attack Ottway. Henrick notices and comes to help him. Together, they get cut and bruised but manage to ward off the wolves.

They all gather warmer clothes from the victims, which Pike takes as permission to loot their wallets. Henrick and Ottway yell at him for this behavior, but Ottway does believe they should gather the wallets for the victims’ families. They also grab the meager food stored in the plane — frozen dinners and peanuts. They discuss the wolves, and Ottway explains their habits. They travel in packs, so the fact that there’s three suggests they’ve abandoned their pack, which is good for the survivors. They can smell that this entire group has been wounded, which is bad for them. Ottway hopes the wolves will leave them alone. The wolves do come back, though — and they are part of a pack of nine, bigger than average from being in the wild and having to adapt genetically to hunt bigger game. They simply stare at the survivors. Ottway decides they need to sleep in shifts, and he’ll keep the first lookout. During his shift, Ottway begins hallucinating that the woman he was writing the letter to is standing nearby. Dazed, he eats a packet of instant coffee to keep himself awake and stabilized. Later, during his watch, Luttinger sneaks off to urinate — and the wolves get him. At daybreak, the others wake and find his remains, horrified. Ottway decides they need to get away from the wreckage, out in the open tundra so the wolves can’t sneak up on them. He points out that they only have two hours of daylight, so they need to make it count.

As they walk, Ottway finds his gun bag. He digs through it and finds all the guns twisted and useless from the crash, but he takes some usable shell boxes. Burke and Pike ask how Ottway got to know so much, and Ottway explains he was once a poacher. Ottway’s big plan of not getting sneaked upon fails — wolves kill Flannery without much effort, then back off. Henrick is baffled, not understanding why these wolves are taking them out one at a time. Ottway fishes out Flannery’s wallet, and they keep moving. They continue through the open tundra to a forest, which Ottway hopes will give them some protection. He’s wrong — the wolves are waiting at the tree line. Ottway tells them to walk — don’t run — to a distant edge of the trees. Burke defies the order and runs, the wolves nearly killing him until Ottway reminds Burke to use his knife. He stabs a wolf, causing the others to run away. The crash survivors run into the thick of the forest.

Deep in the forest, they find a protected area and build a fire. They hear the wolves in the distance, fighting among themselves. Ottway grabs some branches, tapes shotgun shells to the ends of them, creating spears for each of them. Henrick wonders how well wolves see at night; they’re nocturnal, so they’re bred to see at night. This fact makes none of them happy. Henrick digs through his pack and finds some mini-liquor bottles from the plane. He distributes them. Their discussions turn into heated arguments, turning into a fistfight — when a wolf is upon them, attacking Pike. It takes a great deal of effort, but with the knives, shell-spears, and empty liquor bottles, the entire group manages to take down the wolf. Proud of their victory, Ottman insists on roasting the wolf and eating it, because the wolves will sense and smell what they’re doing and think twice about attacking again.

Later, Ottway and Henrick assess Burke’s wolf injuries. They fear he’s hypoxic, an altitude sickness that will kill him if it goes untreated. Later, the group falls into a discussion about faith. The conversation is cut short when Burke begins raving about his daughter. They know he’s at death’s door and try to calm themselves by talking about their own families. A storm rages upon them, wind blowing furiously. Burke ends up dying as a result. They try to make some distance during the day, then struggle to build a fire in the wind. Ottway ends up setting his hand on fire, but eventually they get the campfire lit, blocking the wind with their bodies. After the wind dies down, Ottway hears the distant sounds of a river. They’re thrilled, thinking the river will lead them to civilization. They rush to investigate…and find a high cliff edge.

The only way to get to the river is to scale the cliff — 30 feet out, then 20 feet down. They construct a crude tether from a trussing rope and clothing from the wreckage. Terrified, Henrick makes the first dive and successfully gets to the trees, securing the tether. Pike goes next, followed by Ottway, leaving Talget, who has a vertigo attack and ends up falling. The trees blanket his fall, but not by much. Nonetheless, he’s alive when the wolves come upon him. He hallucinates his little girl is with him and doesn’t seem to notice as the wolves eat him alive. Pike freaks out, concerned the wolves are never going to let them go. Ottway tells Pike not to think about dying — just fight. Pike looks uncertain as they march toward the river.

As they trudge along the bank, Pike simply collapses. Ottway and Henrick try to convince him to keep going, but Pike refuses. He’s stopped caring, content with the idea of going out on his own terms. There’s nothing for him back in the real world, so why fight to get back there? The others accept this decision and wait for him to die. Afterward, Henrick asks Ottway where he was headed “that night.” Ottway doesn’t know what this means, but Henrick explains he saw Ottway leaving the bar — the night he attempted suicide, at which point it becomes clear that the flashback bear attack from earlier immediately followed Ottway sticking a shotgun in his mouth and preparing to pull the trigger. Henrick’s only seen the look in Pike’s eyes one other time — that night, in Ottway’s eyes. Ottway has no answer to the question. Henrick asks another: what made Ottway change his mind? Ottway shrugs: “Fear.” They continue trudging along the river ice floe when it caves in, bringing Henrick down with it. Ottway struggles to pull Henrick out, but the current is too strong. Henrick freezes to death before he even has a chance to get pulled under.

Ottway keeps moving, yelling at himself for getting everyone killed. He comes upon an icy bottleneck, followed by a clearing, where animal carcasses are strewn about. As Ottway keeps moving, he sees a cave. Sitting at the mouth of the cave — one of the wolves, watching, waiting. Ottway has walked right into their den without realizing it. Angry and reflecting on all the lives lost on this journey, Ottway takes his own advice to Pike and confronts them head-on — taking on the six remaining wolves with unabashed fury. It’s an unfair fight, and the wolves kick his ass, but they don’t kill him. They’re scared away by something — the noise of an approaching helicopter. It lands and brings Ottway to the hospital, where he lies in bed with the woman glimpsed earlier.

Comments:

The Grey is a modern take on Jack London-style arctic adventures, with elements of grim disaster movies like The Perfect Storm and Alive. The script contains a number of harrowing, adrenaline-pumping set pieces, but its overall lack of character development causes the many deaths to lack emotional impact. As written, it merits a consider.

The first act does a nice job of setting the tone, establishing the stakes, and giving some idea of what this script will be about: man versus wolf in the arctic tundra. However, the writers misfire almost immediately by focusing far too much on Ottway and not enough on the ensemble. Ottway is a fairly compelling character, but this story follows seven of the plane crash survivors, and all of them (including, to some extent, Ottway) lack depth.

Over the course of the second act, there are a lot of dialogue scenes — characters discussing what to do about the wolves, where to go next, etc. This should add some dimension to the other characters, but it really doesn’t. They’re each assigned a single personality quirk (Flannery the chatterbox, Pike the remorseless thief, etc.), but they don’t develop into more compelling characters as the story goes on. When the body count starts going up in the second act, the deaths have minimal impact as a result of this poor development. The narrative simply moves on without dwelling.

In the third act, this flaw becomes especially apparent, in which Ottway ultimately becomes the lone survivor. While it’s satisfyingly ironic to see Ottway accidentally stumble into the wolves’ den, the reflection on his fallen colleagues doesn’t pack the punch it should, on either Ottway himself or the audience. Finally, Ottway awakens in a hospital with his mysterious lost love by his side, and it becomes clear where the writers went wrong: they took a gritty ensemble piece and attempted to turn it into a half-baked story about one man searching to reclaim his lost love.

What might help the characters’ believability is a chance to see them in the real world, working their oil rig or drinking at the bar. All the writers show is Ottway, not introducing any of the other characters until they get on the plane. If the writers give a better understanding of what drives the others, the rest of the story will fall into place and their untimely deaths will have some meaning.

Instead, these deaths just prompt lingering questions like, “Why was Pike’s life so rotten that he decided to simply wait to die instead of muddling through until they found rescue?” The script wants his death to seem like a noble reward for a man who led a tough, impossible life — but they never develop the character fully enough for the audience to understand his tough, impossible life. Ironically, Ottway is the only character who has his mysterious questions answered, but his love story feels ambiguous and tacked-on. It’s never clear if this motivates him to stay alive to get back to the woman he loves, or if the fact that he know he’ll never see her again haunts him and makes him both fearless and reckless.

The overall beats of the post-crash story are pretty solid and loaded with variety. The writers do a very good job of exploiting their setting without feeling too much like similar movies (e.g., Alive). Really, the poorly developed characters are the only thing keeping The Grey from being a great survival story.

Posted by D. B. Bates on February 10, 2010 10:28 AM