This was always low priority when it was out, and also looked of a piece with the other Liam Neeson action thrillers, so I just never got around to seeing it in theaters. But then it started appearing on a fair amount of "best of 2012" lists, so I finally rented it and... realized I would have been totally fine to skip it, although it does have some nice qualities. This is directed by Joe Carnahan, who also gave us The A-Team and Smokin' Aces.
We open at an Alaskan oil refinery where Liam Neeson as Ottway is writing a letter to his ex-wife, having memories of her as he laments that "he's stopped doing this world any real good." He sees her smiling at him from beneath covers (she is in the classic Famke Jansson-esque Neeson wife vein, although she's not Famke, and thus is not Famke Fabulous), a vision that will continue to come back to him throughout the movie. He describes the men at work at this refinery as "Ex-cons, drifters, etc.... men unfit for mankind," and we see him step outside and put his rifle barrel into his mouth... but ultimately, he can't do it. Bottom line: he's touched bottom and his will to keep living is low, but then again, he also feels he has little to lose. His job at the refinery is to lie in wait and shoot wolves before they attack any men. We see him shooting a wolf as it comes quite near a group of men, but the men don't seem to notice, or even hear the shot.
Next thing we know, they're all getting on an airplane to return home. The men pile in, and are an annoying group of roughnecks, including one played by the delightful Joe Anderson who was wonderful as the deputy in the remake of The Crazies. Ottway puts the note to his wife in the seat in front of him. The guys lift off, and don't make it too far before it becomes apparent that their plane is going down. The crash is handled reasonably interestingly, with things just getting worse and worse, no one ever saying "the plane is crashing!" At the most effective moment, Ottway straps three buckles around himself, and suddenly the wall gives way and we see a snowy hill with dark trees below. Personally, I like a bit more drama in my plane crashes, but for doing it on the cheap, this was respectable. The screen goes black and next thing we know, we're on the ground.
Ottway has survived with just a few scratches, and walks over the hillside to see the downed plane. He rescues who he can, and helps one guy to die (”You're going to die") before instructing the survivors to gather materials and find stuff for a fire. One corpse is being attacked by a wolf and Ottway foolishly runs in and gets badly bitten. Umm, the guy was dead, right? No need to get injured over nothing. The survivors make it through the night, losing one other guy. They have to face down a pack of wolves, appearing as sets of glowing eyes in the dark, just like on Scooby-Doo. In the morning they decide that there's no sense in staying with the plane, the logic of which seems pretty tenuous, and need to hike out of there. Something to do with being in the wolves' hunting territory. Seven of them set out, including Scandinavian Heinrick, impulsive macho Latino Diaz, and Talget, who is Dermot Mulroney looking like a hot hipster.
SPOILERS > > >
The guys are ignorant morons, how you'd imagine a bunch of Alaskan refinery guys, and they of course question Ottway taking command. The wolves pack and attack, leading to some good shots as they're running and we look over here to see three wolves closing in, then pan over there to see more wolves charging. One guy is taken, causing Neeson to call the wolf leader and say "I will find you. And I will kill you." Kidding. The guys are trudging though knee-deep snow, yet somehow are able to outrun the wolves and get into the safety (?) of the woods. There are a lot of decisions in here that seem questionable given what you saw on that one nature survival show you watched that one time, and if you peruse IMDb reviews you'll find a great many people calling the survival decisions made here into question. I'd actually find it fascinating if the movie was about how Ottway takes command, but actually leads everyone into making awful decisions (which one could argue is the case), but the rest of the movie doesn't seem to support that interpretation.
They get into the woods and make a fire. Ottway convinces them all to make single-use explosive prods, when it seems they should be making multi-use spears. Diaz starts sounding off about how they're all fools wasting their time, then he gets attacked. They kill the wolf and eat it, and in here we get the appearance of the Alpha wolf, conveniently color-coded as nearly black, while the others are gray. Anyway, Diaz is now on board with the survival program.
They continue hiking, and come to the edge of a cliff, the treetops from the ground below about twenty feet away. You might look to see if there was a way to climb down, but it is decided that one must leap into the treetops, tie a rope, then the others will climb over. Heinrick jumps and makes it into the trees no problem! Then the others go and, well, if Ottway is such a uber-survival genius, I find it doubtful that he'd let the guy with the paralyzing fear of heights go last. If only because he's going to cause more trouble when they have to go out and rescue him. I'm beginning to wonder if this whole movie IS intended as a catalog of bad survival decisions. Anyway, Muroney's hot hipster dad goes across, loses his hipster glasses halfway (causing me to hear Velma exclaim: "My Glasses!), falls, and is instantly devoured by wolves. That were just waiting there? That just set upon anything that drops from the sky? Let's not think too deeply. Now there's only three left, Heinrick, Diaz, and Ottway.
Next Diaz sits down and announces that he's had enough, he's gonna stay there and die. The guys try to talk him out of it, but he's firm. I like the counterprogramming of having this guy decide to take control of his destiny by choosing to die, and rejecting the typical "you must do anything to survive" ideology. Immediately after, Heinrick and Ottway are pursued into the raging stream by wolves, and Heinrick gets his leg caught, it doesn't seem like all that much effort is really expended to free him, and... well, that's it for him, then. Now it's just Ottway. He wanders around and suddenly realizes: he's in the alpha wolf's den! Which is bad news. He girds himself for battle, he and the alpha rush each other and: the screen goes black! The end! Thanks so much for your time.
< < < SPOILERS END
So the good thing about it, and the reason it got so many good reviews, is that it's dark and moody and goes deep into the guys' resignation in the face of death, and acknowledges that maybe they won't survive, maybe the human spirit won't prevail, and maybe even having a distant love out there to return to isn't enough. That's great, but otherwise, not too much here. One questions Ottway's leadership--like, leave the wreck, really?--and some of his other command decisions (run into the woods? Where you can't see danger coming?) and I would have liked it if the movie had developed that he was actually misguided and leading the other men into danger due to his arrogance, but no, he's an alpha-man sage the whole way through. But the movie doesn't reward your wish to see his cleverness and intelligence--if that's what it is--pay off. So it is what it is, it's good enough, it'll pass time, but overall I could have very easily lived without it.
Won't kill you, but it won't make you stronger.