John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works in Alaska, killing wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. On his last day on the job, he shoots one. That evening, Ottway writes a letter "without purpose" to his wife, Ana (Anne Openshaw), explaining his plans to commit suicide. He hears a distant wolf howl and doesn't follow through.
The next day, Ottway and other oil drillers board a plane. During the flight, Ottway dreams of sleeping with his wife in bed but is awakened by a loud bang. He buckles up in fear of a possible plane crash. Shortly afterwards, the back of the plane is torn off, luggage starts getting sucked out and the plane crashes. Eight people including Ottway survive the crash. However, a young oil worker, Lewenden, dies of his injuries as Ottway sadly watches. Taking charge, Ottway sets the survivors on the task of building a fire. While doing this, he discovers a corpse, and is attacked by the grey wolf feeding on it. After saving Ottway, the group surmises that they are in the wolves' territory. They decide to take turns keeping watch for the predators.
Later, Hernandez (Ben Bray) is killed by two wolves. Ottway suggests they leave the crash site, but Diaz (Frank Grillo) questions his leadership. While searching for the wallets of their deceased colleagues, intending to return them to their families, Diaz finds an emergency wrist watch containing a radio beacon. The group then leaves the site.
While walking, Flannery (Joe Anderson) falls behind, and is killed by wolves. One of them spots a pack of wolves approaching, and the survivors run for the trees, lighting a fire in an attempt to ward off their attackers. The group sets about producing makeshift weaponry. A stressed Diaz loses his cool somewhat and belligerently threatens Ottway with a knife, but is quickly disarmed and ultimately begins regretting his actions. Just as he's about to apologize, he's suddenly pounced upon by a wolf from behind. An omega wolf sent by the alpha wolf to test them Ottway later surmises, after all managing to kill it and then roasting it for food. A bloodied and crazed Diaz, elated at having survived the attack, beheads the corpse and loudly howling like a wolf, defiantly throws the severed head back at the pack. A move noted by the group as possibly unwise, as they (erroneously) accept a statement that "wolves are known to take revenge".
While sitting around the fire, Diaz tells the group of his atheism, and Talget (Dermot Mulroney) states he believes in God and lovingly talks about his daughter. Ottway states he is also an atheist, but wishes he could believe or have faith. Ottway then recites a simple poem written by his father. A blizzard approaches, and the survivors set to maintaining the fire while some get some rest.
The following morning, Burke (Nonso Anozie), who had earlier been suffering from hypoxia, is found dead. The remaining survivors leave the camp, and travel to the edge of a steep canyon. Hendrick (Dallas Roberts) secures a line across to a tall tree opposite and Diaz & Ottway traverse the canyon. Talget, however, is afraid of heights and with the added handicap of a bleeding mangled hand, when his foot becomes caught on a hook, in the ensuing struggle the rope breaks away. He falls to the ground, getting severely thrashed by tree branches on the way down; barely alive, he hallucinates a vision of his daughter, but is instantly set upon and dragged away by four wolves. While attempting to save Talget, Diaz falls from the tree and badly injures his knee.
Diaz, Ottway, and Hendrick continue and arrive at a river. There, Diaz, humbled by his journey and unable to walk on, explains that he can accept dying in the middle of nature and will not try to keep running. They part company, leaving a tearful Diaz contemplating the glorious mountainous vista and his resigned fate. Reluctantly Ottway and Hendrick continue on together. Further along the river, Ottway and Hendrick are set upon by the wolves. In an attempt to flee, Hendrick falls into the river and in the chaos is trapped beneath the surface when his foot gets wedged between boulders. Ottway attempts to save him but unable to pull him loose, Hendrick soon drowns. Frustrated and now alone, Ottway looks up and appeals to God for help, to "show him something real", but soon realises the futility of his plea.
Ottway, cold and wet, continues on alone. Exhausted, he stops walking and begins going through the collected wallets of the others. Ottway then realizes he has stumbled right into the wolves' den - and that the team had been steadily walking towards, not away from, the source of danger. Surrounded by the pack, he looks at his wife's photo in his wallet; it is then revealed that she was dying of a terminal illness (& hence his own futility earlier). As the large, snarling alpha wolf approaches him, Ottway arms himself with a knife and shards of glass from small liquor bottles taped to his other hand. After reciting his father's poem once more, he lunges at the alpha wolf...
In a brief post-credits scene, the wolf is seen lying injured on the ground and breathing softly, with the back of Ottway's head visible resting on the wolf, while also breathing (?) - It is not made clear whether he has been mortally wounded or if he will indeed survive.Liam Neeson as John Ottway
Frank Grillo as John Diaz
Dermot Mulroney as Jerome Talget
Dallas Roberts as Pete Hendrick
Joe Anderson as Todd Flannery
Nonso Anozie as Jackson Burke
James Badge Dale as Luke Lewenden
Ben Hernandez Bray as Hernandez
Anne Openshaw as Ana Ottway
The Grey reunited director Joe Carnahan with producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott (credited as executive producer) as well as actor Liam Neeson, who collaborated on the 2010 action film The A-Team. The film initially imagined a much-younger lead character and Bradley Cooper, who also worked with Carnahan on The A-Team, was cast in the lead role, but he was eventually replaced by Neeson.
Filming began in January 2011 and ended in March. The film was shot in forty days. Though set in Alaska, the film was shot in Vancouver and Smithers, British Columbia, with several scenes being shot at the Smithers Regional Airport. According to Empire magazine, in the climactic scene in which Neeson's character pens a letter to his wife, Carnahan urged Neeson to "channel his grief" over the death of his own wife, Natasha Richardson. Carnahan disclosed, in a Q&A session following an early screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, that he had shot an alternative ending (that he'd never intended to use) showing Neeson battling the alpha wolf. It was supposed to be included in deleted cuts, however, no extras were included on the Blu-ray.
The world premiere of The Grey took place on January 11, 2012, at the Regal Cinemas Theatre in Los Angeles. The film was released nationwide on January 27, 2012.
Promotion for The Grey in part targeted Christian groups by issuing a "film companion", which highlighted the spiritual value of the film. Marketing also partnered with The Weather Network to highlight the hazardous filming conditions. Open Road Films incorporated comments tweeted by film critics to promote the film in the third trailer for The Grey. This was the first time tweets from and Twitter handles for professional critics had been used in a film trailer.
The score for The Grey was released on CD February 14, 2012. A digital version available for download was released on January 24, 2012.
The Grey received positive reviews from critics, with particular praise going to Neeson's performance, as well as Carnahan's direction and the film's atmosphere. The Grey has a "certified fresh" score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 192 reviews with an average rating of 6.9/10. The site's critical consensus states, "The Grey is an exciting tale of survival, populated with fleshed-out characters and a surprising philosophical agenda." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 64 out of 100, based on 35 critics, indicating "generally favourable reviews".
Roger Ebert gave the film 3 and a half stars out of 4, and wrote that the unrelenting harshness of The Grey so affected him that he departed the screening of a different movie on the same day:
It was the first time I've ever walked out of a film because of the previous film. The way I was feeling in my gut, it just wouldn't have been fair to the next film... There's time for some conversation among the men, and this film, directed by Joe Carnahan and written by him and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, treats them as individuals. They're not simply a group of victims. The Grey advances with pitiless logic. There are more wolves than men. The men have weapons, the wolves have patience, the weather is punishing. I sat regarding the screen with mounting dread. The movie had to have a happy ending, didn't it? If not "happy," then at least a relief in some sense? Sit through the entire credits. There's one more shot still to come. Not that you wouldn't be content without it.
The film also earned a place on A.O. Scott's list of the year's ten best films, and Slate film critic Dana Stevens included it in her runners-up for the year's best movies. Film Critic Richard Roeper also had The Grey in his top 10 best movies of 2012 list, placing it at number 3.
Dissenters' reviews tend to focus on the film's abrupt ending and perceive the emotional and philosophical undertones as unnecessary. Siobhan Synnot of The Scotsman gave the film two stars, commenting that "On the down side, there's a lot of dull pretentious philosophizing about the heartlessness of nature and God. On the up side, you get to see a man punch a wolf in the face." Some reviewers and analysts have described the film as having an atheist theme, due to characters such as John Ottway (Liam Neeson) pleading for divine help but not getting any.
The Grey opened in North America on January 27, 2012 in 3,185 theaters and grossed $19,665,101, with an average of $6,174 per theater and ranking #1 at the box office. The film ultimately earned $51,580,236 domestically and $25,698,095 internationally for a total of $77,278,331, above its $25 million production budget.
On January 19, 2012, British Columbia's The Province featured an article about the movie's crew buying four wolf carcasses from a local trapper, two for props for the film and two wolves for the cast to eat. This angered environmentalists and animal activists, who were already irate that the film depicts wolves in a negative light, specifically at a time when grey wolves had recently been removed from the Endangered Species Act in many western American states. In response to the portrayal of wolves in the film, groups including PETA and WildEarth Guardians started drives to boycott the film. Open Road responded by placing a fact sheet about the grey wolf on the film's official website, with cooperation from the Sierra Club. Carnahan responded by downplaying the significance of the violent wolves portrayed in the film, instead highlighting the significance of man's internal struggle for survival.
The film was nominated in 2012 for the International Wolf Center's Scat Award in Scare Tactics and Silly Information categories, being granted said distinction in 2013.