The Grey was supposed to be the movie where Liam Neeson fights wolves. And technically it is: there are, in fact, several scenes where Liam Neeson comes into contact with some wolves and every one of those meetings ends in bloodshed. But the wolves are not really wolves anymore than the fish in the Old Man and The Sea is actually a fish. No, these wolves are metaphor-wolves meant to personify life's various hardships, and that means that this is actually the movie where Liam Neeson fights existential setbacks. Since wolves and inner demons are different things, I think you could safely accuse this movie of being a bit of a bait-and-switch.
The first scene of The Grey establishes it's tone: it starts with Liam Neeson's character Ottway attempting suicide because he's grieving over his dead wife and because he's stuck in an arctic hellhole working for an oil company that he doesn't believe in. But when the plane that's taking him back to civilization crashes Ottway rediscovers his will to survive. Actually, that brush with death reinvigorates him so much that he ends up becoming the de facto leader of all of the survivors as they try to overcome cold, hunger, and predators on their way back to the nearest city. Suddenly the man who nearly quit life the day before has become so gung ho about life's possibilities that he's telling everyone else that they can never give up no matter how bleak it might get.
Of course, surviving freezing temperatures and angry wolves is easier said than done, especially since those obstacles aren't the normal obstacles you might expect in a man vs. nature story - these antagonists carry an extra level of psychological danger with them. They aren't besetting our stranded heroes because the environment is utterly indifferent about the survival of individual humans or because those forest beasts are hungry for man-flesh. No, they do it because they need to teach Ottway and Co. that no matter how dark it gets, they still have to fight onward, and the best way to do that is to attack the humans at the exact moment that their energy is beginning to wear thin.
In other words, this movie is a lot more like Gravity than it is like the other Liam Neeson action movies, because Gravity was another movie that used an extreme survival situation as an extended metaphor for the endurance of the human spirit. However, Gravity was smart enough to push it's underwhelming aphorisms to the edge of the frame so it could concentrate on providing as much time as possible for it's unbelievable setpieces. The Grey is not nearly that canny. Ottway repeats a poem that amounts to "you've gotta fight!" to himself at several points; he delivers motivational speeches to the other survivors; he narrates a voice over that explicitly tells the viewer what it all means. Alas, the wolf fights aren't nearly exciting enough to make up for all that ponderousness - they're generic horror film sequences that somehow got dumped in the middle of a movie that thinks it's much more respectable than it really is.
I suppose there's a certain type of person who will find this movie's motivational poster message to be uplifting. They aren't completely wrong; of course The Grey is right and we have to keep on living even when times are tough. Still, it's mixture of machoness and metaphor left me cold. I just couldn't put myself in Ottway's shoes. Don't get me wrong - I, too, have existential problems, but I wouldn't personify those problems as being wolf-like. The things that haunt me aren't going to rip my throat out, or make me run for my life. For the most part they are reoccurring minor obstacles that are gradually grinding me down by sheer repetition - they are self-criticims I can't quite shake off, adult hassles like unnecessary bureaucratic hoops that I can't avoid, or frustrating personal relationships I can neither quit nor improve upon. You could maybe represent those problems as a raccoon, because that's an animal that is almost everywhere and more annoying than lethal. Unfortunately, I doubt Liam Neeson is ever going to make a movie where he goes toe to toe with a pack of raccoons that are meant to represent emotional exhaustion.
Which is a long way of saying that I don't think that this movie's metaphorical intentions are very well integrated with it's literal narrative. If Ottway was fighting flesh and blood wolves then they would have to behave like wolves, but they don't; they aren't hunting him for food, and they continue track him long after he's stopped representing a threat to their den. If Ottway is going to fight something that's supposed to stand in for all of his fears and worries than it needs to be something that seems omnipresent, invisible and nefarious, because those are the qualities we associate with our deepest nihilistic fears. But which sounds more omnipresent, invisible and nefarious: the void of outer space as seen in Gravity or the only-one-step-removed-from-a-dog threat of the Grey? I'll give you a hint: it's not the one we can domesticate.
Ultimately, I'm of two minds about whether The Grey would have been better if it had been the straight forward horror movie I was expecting. On the one hand, I would probably have enjoyed it more if it had been more focused on being entertaining than on being 'enlightening'. On the other hand, I've seen enough movies about men who have to outrun wild animals that I can't imagine I would have been too invested in another straight forward version of that narrative. At the end of the day, they're both kind of unfulfilling; there's only so much you can get out of a movie that's built around a one dimensional metaphor and you're probably going to get even less out of a movie that isn't even aiming that high.
That said: I would still totally watch a movie where Liam Neeson has to go toe to toe with a raccoon that's hellbent on breaking his mind - even though that type of movie is totally dumb it is still my jam. Liam, if you're reading this you need to call me - I have a killer idea that I want to pitch you called The Grey 2: The Black and Grey. It won't win you any awards, but it'll be a lot funnier than this mediocrity.
Winner: The Cat