Imagine being stranded on the Alaskan tundra. You’re battling frostbite, starvation, and frequent blizzards, but these conditions are the least of your concerns. The ultimate threat to your survival? Killer wolves!
At least that’s the premise of The Grey, a new thriller that takes Big Bad Wolf folklore to new extremes. Wolves have long been maligned in literature and movies, from Little Red Riding Hood to Twilight, but they’re more menacing than ever in The Grey. When they’re not mauling faces and tearing off limbs, they’re stalking somewhere nearby, terrorizing their soon-to-be victims with chilling howls and snarls.
Liam Neeson stars as Ottway, the leader of a group of roughneck oil riggers fighting off a vicious pack of mammoth beasts after a plane crash dumped them in the Alaskan wilderness. Back at the rig, Ottway’s job was to hide out and shoot wolves that attacked workers at random. In the wild, the wolves get their revenge.
Critics are calling The Grey an entertaining tale of man vs. beast, but animal-rights activists think the movie is absurd.
“The notion that wolves attack humans is ridiculous,” says Wendy Keefover, carnivore-protection director for WildEarth Guardians, one of several groups that has called for a boycott of the film, claiming it’s “inciting terror” of wolves in the same way that Jaws did of sharks.
“Most people don’t know anything about wolves. This movie will tap into their primal fears and create mass hysteria,” Keefover tells The Daily Beast. Only two fatal wolf attacks have been documented in the history of North America, yet The Grey depicts wolves as eviscerating man-eaters. The result, Keefover says, will be disastrous for wolf-conservation efforts. Even as federal wildlife biologists reintroduce packs of wolves across North America, the endangered animals are still hunted in parts of the region by people who claim they’re a major threat to livestock. Just ask Sarah Palin, though she prefers shooting them down from the sky to hunting on the ground with other trappers.
They’re not exactly advocating for animal rights, but hunters are howling over The Grey’s bloodthirsty wolves, too. “Wolves have never been aggressive toward me in the 25 years I’ve worked with them close up!” exclaims Carter Niemeyer, a retired professional trapper and author of The Wolfer. “From my experience, they’re curious, they’re cautious, they’re aloof, and they really don’t want anything to do with you.” Still, he doesn’t advise camping out in their den, let alone cooking up a wolf carcass and feasting on the meat on their turf, as Ottway and the rig workers do in one stomach-turning scene.
While filming, the actors were actually eating lamb, but they did sample wolf meat when the cameras weren’t rolling, apparently in an attempt to really sink their teeth into the plight of their characters. Producers bought the wolf carcasses from a local trapper named Dick McDiarmid.
“They took two for props, and then I guess they got talking about it and wondered what wolf actually tasted like, so I shipped two more down, and they took them to a fancy chef to cook them up,” McDiarmid tells The Beast. As a sort of reward, he was chosen to be an extra in one of the earlier scenes in the movie, when an actor opened up about their wolf feast, admitting he couldn’t really stomach his filet. “He said, ‘I’m a pretty big guy, but it didn’t take much to fill me up.’”
The meat-eating controversy has given animal-rights groups like PETA another reason to boycott the film, though they’re mostly riled up about The Grey’s misguided portrayal of “intelligent, family-oriented animals,” PETA says in a statement on its website.
While director Joe Carnahan wasn’t available to speak with The Beast, he told the Los Angeles Times he didn’t intend for the film “to suggest that wolves are vicious animals,” adding that they’re no more ruthless than the hostile Alaskan wilderness.
He’s right to an extent—billowing snow, screeching wind, and a desolate landscape loom ominously over the crash survivors. But the wolves are the flesh-eating villains. Without them, The Grey would lack blockbuster bite. It’s no surprise that a face-off between a burly Liam Neeson and an alpha wolf would appeal to thrill-seekers. Indeed, the film is on track to top this weekend’s box office—apparently moviegoers just want to see Neeson punch wolves in the face.
Will everyone leave theaters with wolf phobia? “Hopefully they’ll see through the misrepresentation and won’t be too influenced by the fear factor,” says Niemeyer.