Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Grey

I don't often like scary movies. Seeing "The Grey" last night, I came to understand my aversion a little better.

The film follows a dwindling group of air crash survivors as they battle the elements and a voracious pack of wolves in a cold, wind-swept arctic tundra. I'm usually drawn to these types of stories -- where a small group must overcome itself to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. This film was no exception: I wanted to get to know the characters, and I enjoyed following the power-structure shifts as various characters came to understand their weaknesses. But then, the wolves come, and the film falls in to familiar "jump out of the darkness" startle techniques. The wolves in the darkness are scary, and I don't mind that. But I hate being startled. Every time I'm startled, it reminds me that I'm watching a movie, and I lose that immersive feeling of being drawn in to the movie's world. In "The Grey", I noticed an additional detrimental effect: When the characters were merely talking, recalling their past, sharing their stories, instead of listening to them, I kept reminding myself not to get too drawn in, lest a wolf jump out suddenly and startle me again.

The parallel scene from a truly excellent scary movie is the scene from "Jaws" where the police chief, the scientist and the sea captain trade stories and get drunk in their boat. It's similarly structured: we learn about the characters, then the shark attacks. We've seen the shark already, and we fear the shark, but when the shark does attack, it's not a startling moment. A filmmaker's job in a scary movie is not just to scare the audience, but to shelter the audience when the audience should really be focusing on other things. Make us feel safe enough to listen, and then give us the characters and their story. If you want to undermine that sense of safety, do it with respect for what the safety is there for. If we don't feel safe ever, we won't allow the film to embrace us.

"The Grey" does borrow from "Jaws" in more successful ways. The idea of the danger being in front of us, obscured by a barrier that won't stop it, is ever-present. In "Jaws", the shark appears through the water without warning, so every time we see the water's surface, we fear the shark lurking beneath it. In "The Grey", wolves sometimes emerge from the haze of drifting snow, or from the pitch-black of an overcast night. We know that darkness is no barrier to the wolves. In "The Grey", both darkness and the fog-like snow are frightening for what might lurk just beyond. That Riddick film, "Pitch Black", works the same way.


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