If You Liked The Grey, Then You'd Better Check Out The Edge
If you enjoyed watching Liam Neeson battle territorial wolves in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey — and plenty of moviegoers have — then you'd be well-advised to look into Lee Tamahori's 1997 thriller The Edge. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin and perhaps best characterized by screenwriter David Mamet's trademark clipped dialogue, the film is an unusually strong entry in the survival-story tradition — and one to which The Grey owes at least a spiritual debt (if not more).
This genre is certainly well-trod territory, and perhaps for good reason: Dramatically speaking, it's pretty hard to get it wrong. You strand characters in the harsh wilderness. They experience hardship. Eventually they learn to face mortality with some measure of grace. They make it out, or they don't. The Grey is the more genre-typical of the two films and draws more readily from those aspects that are common to all stories of its type, with the added attraction of some great camera work and a strong performance from Liam Neeson.
The Edge, however, transcends those trappings to offer a more philosophical, character-centered naturalist meditation. Don't let the overcranked trailer fool you:
The difference between the two films is all the more striking if only because their plot points are so remarkably similar, even for a genre that necessarily has to hit a few key points. In both, a plane crashes in a forest, and the survivors are forced to fend for themselves against the elements and wild beasts. While in The Grey, we see a marauding pack of arctic wolves randomly picking off crash survivors one by one, The Edge features an equally bloodthirsty grizzly bear. Both films have leaders emerge in the forms of Neeson’s Ottway and Hopkins’s Charles Morse, who each tries to save his respective group from starvation and creeping despair. And in each film there is a character who vocalizes the direness of the situation at every turn, a stock role that should probably be known as the “Game over!” guy, after Bill Paxton’s panicky emergency-narrator from Aliens.
Thematically, both films juxtapose the behavior of modern men with the untamed wild, showing that the safety of civilization can be blinding to what is essentially human. The Grey is a lot harder-nosed, preoccupied with the endurance of man as an animal; The Edge, meanwhile, focuses on the ingenuity of man as a thinking being. And while the latter film’s emphasis on reason ultimately makes it the stronger of the two, that isn’t to say that The Edge is all profound rumination. There is still a ravenous bear to be faced, a lot of great action and one of the greatest motivational speeches in film history:
The idea that being stranded in the wild eventually amounts to a spiritual boon for those stranded — even as they are exposed to all sorts of peril and privation — is present in almost every survival story. But this theme comes off especially well in The Edge, because as a survivalist, Morse understands that mere survival is not enough. He’s more than just a Robinson Crusoe-figure, whose main goal is to persevere by taming the wilderness. Instead, Morse allows himself to be changed. He doesn’t feel the loneliness of, say, Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away, or the alienation of the protagonist of Into the Wild — both of whom experience a character arc that could have happened in a different setting. With Morse, Nature itself, and his right relationship with it, is the point. His communion with Nature doesn’t have an ulterior motive, which achieves a strong personalization of a universal idea: Getting right with the material world and, in the process, regaining his own humanity.