Monday, January 30, 2012

Film review: "The Grey" nominated for the International Wolf Center’s 2012 Scat Award

Note: From time to time, we will invite guest bloggers to post on Wild Bytes. Nancy Jo Tubbs, International Wolf Center board chair, recently watched The Grey and has written this movie review.

"The Grey" nominated for the 2012 Scat Award
The Grey is a monster movie-dark, depressing, and as accurate a portrayal of wolf behavior as King Kong was about gorillas.

The Center is not only nominating The Grey for its first ever Scat Award in the Scare Tactics and Silly Information categories, it’s encouraging blog readers to respond and add to the list of incidents of misinformation we found in the film.

Some movie critics have appreciated the action flick that opened January 27 for its grit or panned it for its schmaltzy man-bonding moments and ambiguous ending. Pro-wolf folks seem to dislike this movie the same way herpetologists probably reacted to Snakes on a Plane and marine biologists hated Jaws. Wolf organizations offended by the portrayal of the wolf as a relentless human-hunting machine are encouraging a boycott and slamming actor Liam Neeson for playing the main character, wolf hunter John Ottway. The International Wolf Center likes to take an educational approach, even to movies.

The overriding problem with The Grey is that the wolves are portrayed as “man-killers,” when the incidence of wolves killing humans in North America is so rare as to garner huge headlines. Two cases have been documented—a 2005 killing by wolves in Saskatchewan and a 2010 death near Chignik Lake, Alaska.

A wolf trapper who provided four wolf carcasses to the production was quoted in British Columbia’s online news source, The Province, as saying about his own meetings with wolves in the wild, “I think they’ve always been curious, you know: What am I doing? I never really felt threatened by them. I’ve seen them watching me from, I don’t know, 75 feet away and then as soon as you look at them they take off.”

Much of the misinformation about wolves in the film comes from the dialogue. Ottway, is guiding seven reprobate oil riggers, survivors of a plane crash, out of the Alaskan wilderness while fighting off a pack wolves that kill the men, one by one. He’s a professional hunter who sounds like an expert, but spouts nonsense, like when he says that wolves have a territory of about 300 square miles and hunt in only about 30 of them. “Fact check: Wolves hunt throughout their territory, and in Alaska that can vary from 300 to 1,000 square miles.

If that sounds nitpicky, consider that central to the plot is Ottway’s pronouncement in this winter saga that the wolves (and now the men) are worried that the humans might encroach on the wolves’ den and would be killed as intruders. Fact check: Wolves den only in the spring in order to bear and raise their pups, and then only for 8-10 weeks. By fall, the pack is on the move.

Most laughable is the assertion by Ottway that the alpha of the pack sent an omega in to attack one of the men gathered around a fire. Fact check: While anthropomorphizing—attributing human characteristics to non-human things or animals—can be fun, it’s rarely true. Low-ranking wolf or not, it wouldn’t have attacked on any other wolf’s “instructions.”

Further, even the terms “alpha” and “omega” in regards to wolves are outdated. Those in the know now refer to the pack as a “family social unit.” The parents are the “breeding pair,” The others in the pack are pups, or yearlings if they are offspring from the prior year, and might be referred to as “subordinate males or females.”

Under the just plain “silly” category is the ludicrous depiction of seven weakened crash survivors outrunning a pack of wolves in knee-deep snow.  Wolves’ feet are especially adapted to run over difficult terrain, such as snow. Given the fact that they can reach speeds of up to 38 mph., our intrepid survivors had a better chance of being rescued by Santa Claus.

We might also note what is missing from the film: Evidence of the wolf’s prey species. These huge, healthy wolves must have been feeding on caribou, deer or moose, but until we see carcasses at the very end, the movie leads us to believe that the humans in the picture are their only possible source of food.

This movie’s wolves are over-sized, hyper-relentless, emitting howls and deep bass growls at appropriately dramatic moments, cued by the director and amplified by the best surround-sound system Hollywood could afford—sans Jurassic Park. But that’s what makes this movie a horror flick and sets a bead of sweat sliding down the back of the viewers’ neck. These are King Kong wolves, Godzilla wolves—not the real deal.

A film review by Brad Wieners in Outside magazine put it well when he said, “We’re talking hand-to-hand combat with animatronic wolves that behave less like canines than like frenzied barracuda.”

In fact, The Grey used sophisticated puppetry and computer-generated images for its wolf scenes. The only animal that looks real and portrays the kind of wolf behavior one is likely to experience is a wolf seen trotting off in the distance.

Movie-goers who like to be scared out of their socks in the theater probably won’t pick up on the wacky wolf information being conveyed, but here at the Center we hope that later they’ll learn enough about real wolf behavior so they’re not scared to take a walk in the winter woods.

What is the Scat Award?
New in 2012, the Center will name the movies, advertisements and other promotional media that represent the best of the worst witless, whoppers of wolf hooey. Stay tuned this time next year when Oscar season rolls around to hear how The Grey fared in this Scat Award competition of misdirected, misbegotten, mischievous misrepresentation.

How much misinformation can you find in The Grey?
Help us with The Grey fact check. We hope you will comment here to educate others about the misinformation you found when watching the movie. You can use the Center’s Web site to learn about the real wolf and add to your arsenal of wolf facts about wolves in Alaska and around the world. Go to

 —By Nancy Jo Tubbs