A couple of weeks back, we had a few friends from our college group over to watch movies. Friday night we watched John Carter, deciding last minute to postpone watching The Grey until the next day when there were less freshman girls in attendance. Not sure that John Carter was the better movie in that situation, but my wife loved it, and no one openly mocked it, so all in all it was a successful movie night.
The next day was intended to be a beach day, but since the first cloud cover from what would become Tropical Storm Debby had settled in over central Florida, we resorted to a movie afternoon (that after a pizza intermission turned into a movie night again, this time This Means War). This time we watched The Grey. Ali decided to watch the first season of The Big Bang Theory in the other room with a friend, and three brave college girls joined me and the guys to watch Liam Neeson do his thing. Since I think it worked so well with Inception last week, let’s try applying the Quadriga here again.
First, the plot. A plane crash in remote Alaska at the dawn of winter places the survivors within the 30-mile kill radius of a den of wolves. In order to survive they need get outside that radius, and Liam Neeson, or from here on “Ottway,” takes over the lead. However, one by one each of the survivors is either attacked and eaten by the wolves, or dies in some other fashion, and is then eaten by wolves. Finally, with only three survivors left, one decides to just to take in a breath-taking Alaskan vista while he waits to die. He reasons he doesn’t have much to live for and doesn’t want to keep fighting. That leaves Ottway and one more guy who cinematically must die before the showdown with the wolves. Once said character drowns, Ottway yells at the grey sky for God to show himself and upon seeing nothing, trudges into a clearing only to realize he is now smack in the middle of the wolves’ den. This is the scene from the movie trailer where he tapes tiny alcohol bottles and knives to his knuckles and gets ready for hand to paw combat. This is how the movie ends, and also why many people hated it.
Given the above plot synopsis, what could possibly be the moral take-away? The message of the movie might be something along the lines of “There is no God, only the grey (sky).” That’s not really a moral premise though, it’s a philosophical position that suggests a moral. Though it is tempting to say the moral premise is “Don’t live in Alaska,” much like Inception, the moral premise of the movie is pretty clear:
Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day
In the film, Ottway’s father wrote the poem. In reality it was written by the director/screenwriter, who of course technically is Ottway’s “father” (“Liam, I am your father”). Anyway, the point is to grab life by the horns so to speak. Life itself is that last good fight you’ll ever know so you better live and die on this day. There’s nothing beyond, there’s just here and now. This is somewhat good advice, kind of like “where ever you are, be there.” “Don’t float through life, live 100%.” :You can’t add years to your life, but you can add life to your years.”
The moral is not particularly profound, but moving up to the allegorical level there is clearly more to this story. I would say it’s fairly obvious that the wolves are metaphor for death. We rarely get a clear glimpse of the wolves and they seem to be almost exclusively lurking in the shadows until they maul someone to death. So, from this perspective, almost the entire movie consists of “running from death,” until the final scene when Liam finds himself in the “den of death” and decided to attack it head on. This is where the above poem plays a key role. Since stories aim to teach you through the protagonist’s action, I think the point being made is that we should not run from death but embrace it and face it like a man.
From a different perspective, I think you could look at Ottway as a Christ-figure. Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” and Neeson “set his face to civilization/survival.” They both however end up in the “den of death.” Jesus went straight to death’s den and defeated it there, emerging victorious. Neeson accidently ended up in death’s den but chose to fight and attempt to defeat it. The movie ends without showing the actual clash, but if you watch all the way until after the credits, the final, final scene is Ottway’s head resting on the belly of the alpha male wolf and he slowly exhales. While the scene before the credits left much to the imagination (but strongly implied Ottway dies) the scene after the credits is nothing if not ambiguous. If looks like he killed the wolf, but like the spinning top in Inception, it doesn’t really matter. The message of the movie is stable whether or not Ottway is triumphant or defeated.
That message, in addition to the moral of the story, is the philosophical denial of an anagogical level to reality. In other words, there is nothing beyond, there is just what we have here and now. Death is not the entry into something else, it’s just the end. God is silent when Ottway screams at the grey sky for him to show himself. So whereas Inception raised the question of whether or not there could be a higher level of reality (and whether or not we could be aware of it), The Grey answers emphatically that there is no higher level, there is just this one so you better make the most of it. Death is not to be feared because it is just part of this reality and everyone’s going to experience it sooner or later. But since there is nothing beyond it, you need to make your own meaning in this life now. Don’t deny your fear (remember Ottway openly admits to being afraid), but don’t let your fear paralyze or control you.
At this point you’re probably asking, “so why is this Nietzsche’s new favorite movie?” Well, because his whole philosophy is built on the presupposition that God, and therefore meaning, morals, and other transcendent absolutes don’t exist. Being a fan of Heraclitus, Nietzsche believed that all there is is the ever-changing flux of the here and now and we’d better embrace and make the best of it. The “Overman” or “Übermensch” is the one with the will to power who realizes this and “mans up.” Ottway is on a philosophical journey that leads to him fully embracing this (and by extension an alpha male wolf) by the end of the movie. Nietzsche would be so proud.
I suppose your other question might be, “so what was Nietzsche’s old favorite movie?” Well I’m guessing it was the last movie with a character that most clearly exemplified the Übermensch ideal, and that of course was The Joker in The Dark Knight.
And all this time you thought Nietzsche was so serious. But, who better to exemplify the “joyful wisdom” than a character called The Joker?