I was concerned.
I was concerned that my expectations for you were too high, that my preemptive opinion of you – formed solely from your talented cast and crew, as well as your trailer and early critical reception – could not be sustained. I wondered if I might be about to see a very good movie that I would discount for not being as good as I hoped you would be.
To say that you exceeded my expectations would be a gross misstatement. Such a claim would imply that you simply functioned as a solid, entertaining action film replete with thrills, remote wilderness adventure, and heart-stopping acts of survivalist daring. While all of that is true, the actuality of your nature is much greater than that. You defied my preconceptions and escaped from the genre-informed box I had crafted for you. You shook me, shocked me, and left me almost speechless as I left the darkened theater and reentered the light.
It begins with your opening sequence. You introduce us to Ottway (Liam Neeson), a battered and disillusioned man working security for a petroleum company in the frozen wastes of Alaska. He wanders the brutal desert of snow and ice in a haze, picking off wolves before they can harm the workers in the field, pining over his wife. He writes letters to her he cannot send, and observes the men around him with distain, or perhaps sorrow. The tone of this scene is mournful, elegiac. The cinematography, the staging, the dreamlike flashbacks; they all create an air of loss and of nihilistic angst. Nothing matters in the face of the emptiness and brutality of this place, and the promise of a return home is a balm to all of the men, though perhaps not Ottway.
All of that hope and happiness and expectation comes to a brutal standstill as the workers’ plane crashes into the wilderness. After the initial shock of coming to amongst a field of wreckage and the chaos of wounded and dying men crying for aid, Ottway becomes a de facto leader, directing the rescue effort. However, despite his obvious drive to survive, he is no fool. When a man asks for an assessment of his chances, Ottway makes no attempt to hide the grim truth from him. He is dying, and the only comfort to be taken from that is to embrace it, and let the memories of his loved ones guide him on. This scene, along with many like it to follow, is a perfect illustration of the awed, almost transcendentalist soul of your tale.
There is an odd, passionate honesty to this moment, and to much of what follows. Darkness leads to a killing cold, and into this environment of hostility and hopelessness enters the wolves. A pack of perfect natural killers driven to defend the area surrounding their den, the wolves taunt and hunt the men, seeking to destroy what they see to be invaders. They are never portrayed as villains, though they are of course a threat. They are another element to be beaten, to be bested or tamed or outwitted. The men feel as though they cannot have survived that plane crash just to be taken down by nature, by the cold or the high altitude or the wolves. This is not a sentiment that is hard to empathize with. Who wouldn’t feel as though surviving something as catastrophic as a plane crash should inoculate them against death by cold or animal? As such the struggle of these men is all the more harrowing.
Further differentiating yourself from the usual action movie tropes, you strive to create a sense of overwhelming empathy and connection with your characters. This goes beyond the usual surface attempts to make an audience care (the glancing mentions of “a girl back home” and the like). You give an insight into these men’s lives, their hopes, the reasons they have to keep living. They give intimate, subtle details of their lives that grant a greater insight into the things that mean the most to them.
Therein is your strength, your power. The characters in your tale are stripped of all of their cares and concerns and investments beyond the basest, most primal and innate reasons they have to live. Each of them, in their own way, comes to the realization that death is unavoidable, if not now then at some point in the future, and that the only means of facing it is to relinquish fear, embrace the mystery of death, live fully and die gracefully. For an ostensible action film this is a heady idea, and the manner in which you address it – through nature, through the inhospitable and outright hostile spirit therein – is simple and effective.
Ottway is an innovative survivalist, fast on his feet and seemingly without fear, though he freely admits he is terrified. In his own way he tries to best the very heart of nature, to not only defeat his own death, but the death of all those around him. He scolds God for not delivering them out of peril, for not granting mercy or clemency from death. He is the human incarnation of the primal survival instinct, the belief that we are above death. That he and the others are seemingly helpless to stop the death of those around them is a great, enfeebling insult to this sense of agency.
All of this philosophizing is not to detract from your more visceral pleasures. In terms of entertainment and engagement, you are a top-notch film. I am a huge personal fan of the wilderness survival genre (I love The Edge beyond reason), and to that end you are stellar. You create a strong sense of place and showcase the forest with a fierce kind of beauty. Your director, Joe Carnahan (Narc), and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi know how to light for mood and frame for effect. They create an atmosphere of deadly majesty that further shrinks the power of the humans.
Even more, you create a fierce and almost irresponsible level of tension and dread. You use the wilderness as a constant pressure, a sort of unleveled playing field for the survivors to try to play on. Their steps are faltering, hobbled by the deep snow. The wolves, as much actual threat as powerful allegory, are terrifying and awe-inspiring. They are at once an ever present danger and dare as well as a sudden and shocking source of violence. They seem almost supernatural in their omnipresence. Their capability, their swiftness, only adds to the sense of impotence and futility that beleaguers the survivors. It is this powerlessness that seems to be the biggest danger, the greatest strain.
Walking out of the theater I was shaken. It is rare for a movie that is at once energetic and thrilling to be existentially enervating and powerful. The connections you make us forge with the characters furthers not only our investment, but our ability to insert ourselves into their positions. Which one would I have been? What kind of understanding would I have come to with myself, with nature, with God? For a film that positioned itself in marketing as a simple adventure tale, these questions come as small, miraculous surprises.
The sense of doom, of powerlessness, and the spectacle of watching capable men struggle against those growing forces is a dark kind of pleasure. I go to movies to be entertained, but also to be challenged, or moved in a kind of inexplicable and incorporeal way. You offer a stunning, unbelievable combination of both, handing out thrills and action at the same time that you force us to confront terrible, inconsolable truths about he very nature of life and death.
You are a rarity, a marvelous success, and I’d be hard pressed to think of another film of your kind that I’ve seen in quite a while. I was concerned that my expectations were too high, I should have been concerned that it would be a while until I saw another movie that could match you.
With muted reverence and joy,
Brian J. Roan