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.

Nathan Pensky is an associate editor at PopMatters and a contributor at Forbes, among various other outlets. He can be found on Tumblr and Twitter as well.


  • Gary says:

    Other movies in the similar vain of The Grey are:

    Flight of the Phoenix
    Enemy Mine

  • j'accuse! says:

    Pensky, I like the cut of your jib. Couldn't put it any better myself, this is a helluva flick. In fact I'm tempted to go out and buy it this afternoon.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    I love that monologue and the ensuing exchange, but nothing quite beats fresh-faced glamourpuss Elle MacPherson playing a character named Mickey Morse.

  • Jake says:

    I thought this same thing coming out of The Grey. Everything you say about The Edge is true. It's excellent. Some of my favorite Mamet stuff. The Edge was always on my list of best films of the 90s because the themes of the story were so uplifting. It transcends the genre.

    I wish I could say the same about The Grey. Though it is in the same genre, it is not in the same league. The story is illogical, characters are poorly drawn, and the themes are boring old existentialist nonsense. Neeson's character is a perfect example. While everything in Mamet's script is carefully crafted and makes perfect sense from a logical standpoint (they crash a small personally owned plane in an area that no one knows they flew to), in The Grey, they crash in a commercial airliner. Even the characters from that film know that someone would come looking for them (this isn't set in 70s like Alive, after all). However, Neeson convinces them that their best chance is to run into the woods? Sadly, where Charles Morse is both intelligent and wise, Neeson's character appears to be unintelligent and foolish, leading a group of survivors to certain death. His choices seem to be based purely on experience, but not logic. Perfect example, he finds his rifle that has been broken. Instead of trying to salvage what he can with it (the barrels are perfectly fine) he tosses the good parts of the gun and takes only the shotgun shells. Later he instructs the other men to tape the shells to the end of sharpened sticks (the fact that he found eight perfectly straight and even sticks in the woods is pretty unbelievable in and of itself). But for anyone who knows anything about guns and shotgun shells (which Neeson's character should know since he's literally a hired gun for the company), flimsily taping shells to sticks to poke at wolves, while feasibly possible, would have an extremely low success rate and probably wouldn't work for any of the created "boom sticks." But put those same shells in the barrels of the gun and poke them with a knife or something else and voila, you have an aimable gun. But I guess that's the difference between a well written movie and a poorly written movie. Logic is what Charles Morse is all about, and yet his logic leads to transcendence through his experience. Won't spoil it, but Neeson's character makes illogical choices leading to something fruitless.

    In the end, The Grey is typical existentialism, offering nothing beyond that (other than another predictable Carnahan hospital bed twist). At every turn they make really dumb choices. They leave the only shelter/food/supplies they have to go into the wild where they know wolves are attacking them. Along the way they leap off cliffs clinging to knotted together shirts? I guess the moral of the story for The Grey is that when humans make foolish choices in a survival situation, they die. Surprise surprise. I don't need to see any movie to figure that out. All I know is that I was rooting for the wolves about half way through to hurry up and end everyone's misery.

    Meanwhile, The Edge is what you get from a masterful writer at the top of his game. Its themes will be relevant forever. With any luck, years from now, no one will remember The Grey. We would all be served if that film was forgotten.

  • Sal Voce says:

    better comments on Grey at http://www.fromwhereistand.info

  • Dean Kish says:

    The Edge is a better movie, nuff said!