The Grey Impenetrable Barrier

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Wednesday, December 14, 2016 0 comments

by David Odegard

Liam Neeson has been one of my favorite actors since he played Qui-Gon Jinn and was the voice of Aslan in the Narnia movies. But in The Grey, he personifies the philosophy of existentialism. This movie takes all of the raw tenets of atheistic existentialism and illustrates them in a survival narrative. Please allow me to exegete the movie for you, constant reader.

The movie opens in the cold, dark, silence of reality in remote northern Alaska. John Ottway (played by Neeson) is a shooter for an oil drilling company. It is his job to shoot the grey wolves that threaten the oil workers; he shoots one on his last day before his contract is over.

John is writing a suicide letter to his wife. He laments the purposelessness of his life and is bewildered why he has done most of the things he has done. The letter is read as a voice over as John walks through the (again, dark, cold, silent) world. He comes to end of the real world to enter into the oil company’s man-made universe, which is a recreation building. When he opens the door into this synthetic universe, he is flooded with light that is too bright and deliberately artificial. Loud raucous music plays while the oil working men, “ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters,” fight, drink, and act in utter chaos. The music fades as John gets lost in his suicidal thoughts once more, regretting the fact that his wife left him and is never coming back.

He concludes his letter with, “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I will ever know.” The scene cuts to John outside kneeling with his rifle; he inserts the barrel into his mouth, reaches the bolt to pull it back, click-click, you hear the bullet chamber. As John puts his thumb on the trigger, he hears a wolf howl. He says, “To live and die on this day.” The scene ends.

John does not pull the trigger, but the entire scene illustrates what is the most important revelation in an existential crisis: I am going to die. This is the heart of existentialism in its theistic and atheistic forms. Though John doesn’t commit suicide, he is as good as dead and the rest of the movie illustrates that life is meaningless and in the end you die. Nihilism, existentialism’s pessimistic cousin, would demand John to pull the trigger. He doesn’t, because he wants to believe in something that can add meaning to his life.

Existentialism is all about meaning. It starts with a universe that is dark, cold, and silent where we all die, but then we can add layers of meaning which are artificial but provide us with some measure of comfort against the harsh reality of death (the existential crisis). This idea is illustrated in the over-bright and rowdy recreational bar. All the scenes in nature in The Grey have four things in common: darkness, cold, quiet, and an imminent threat of death. That is reality in an existential framework; whatever we add to it only numbs the senses into an unnatural assurance of purpose.

John Ottway doesn’t kill himself. He decides to go home even though he won’t find his wife there. Stanley Kubric said, “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.” Meaning in existentialism is a handy optimism; it is an artificial veneer of hope smeared over the complete meaninglessness of life. Soren Kierkegaard called it a leap of faith. After seeing the world as brutal, dark, cold, and pointless, whatever causes you to delay your suicide is the definition of hope. I want to raise my kids, or I want to do something to end the suffering of those around me, or I want to erect a marble statue by which all generations will remember me, etc.

In John’s world, the airplane taking him home represents the baseless optimism of existentialism. But the plane crashes and forces him and the other survivors to cope with reality; namely, the severe cold and death. Death is symbolized throughout the remainder of the movie as the pack of grey wolves that relentlessly stalks the survivors.

Eight survivors each represent a different philosophy of life. There is an atheist named Diaz and a Christian named Talget, for example. John Ottway says he is also an atheist. He would like to believe in God but cannot make himself believe.

Each survivor is picked off one by one. The ultimate message is that no one is immune from death’s tyranny. No matter what philosophy you ascribe to, you will not be saved. The atheist dies, the Christian dies, the science-guy dies. In the end, John Ottway realizes that he is at the den of the grey wolves. The whole time they had been heading toward death, not away from it in spite of their best efforts. John takes his meager weapons and takes a stand. He looks to the sky and yells defiantly at God, “If you’re there, I am asking you for help. I’M CALLIN’ ON YOU, NOW!” A few seconds tick by as the sky looks peacefully empty. There is no help from God and Ottway admits that he is abandoned by God. His words are hauntingly similar to the nihilist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sarte: “I am abandoned in the world... in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help.” John again utters his suicide poem, “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I will ever know,” illustrating that all of his fight to survive was just an extended form of suicide; death is the inevitable. He dies in the end with no help from anyone, and the cold, dark hush fills the world again.

BUT, the Christian’s view of the world is entirely different. Rather than being abandoned, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains - where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2). In John Ottway’s universe, his plea for help was met only with a silent, grey sky. But in the real world, God is there! He hears our cries. This is the essential difference of a Christian worldview. It does not seek to layer meaning over meaninglessness, but to recognize God’s original plan.

Christianity doesn’t begin with silent darkness; it begins by recognizing that God has existed in the bliss of His own triune nature as Father, Son, and Spirit for eternity past. This perfect fellowship and accord is the very definition of paradise. God decided to expand this harmony and fellowship by creating spiritual beings in His image. This is the ultimate purpose of mankind: to live forever enjoying the fellowship and harmony of God. Humans have never been aimless and purposeless until they reject God. Then they drift around looking for something to fill the void that cannot be filled. Depression, despondency, and dependency all originate from a rejection of God’s purpose. Existentialism is an ineffectual cure for the absence of God; it is the true opioid of the masses. That being said, nihilism is even worse - read about that next week!

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