One would think that would be immensely satisfying to those of us who do adhere to the traditional Judeo/Christian convictions. The problem is, it’s mostly nihilistic, even atheistic, and despite the extreme extenuating circumstances, nobody’s faith seems to do them any good, anyway.
This film begins and ends in Alaska (well, actually it was shot in British Columbia, but how many would know the difference?). A group of roughnecks, oil field hands, is lounging, bantering and fisticuffing at the local bar on the grounds of the refinery, where the men are anything but refined. In fact, the main character, Ottway (Liam Neeson), in an overdub during the first scene, proudly intones that this particular group of scalawags, brutes, ne’er-do-wells, drifters, and general tough guys (or nomenclature to that effect) are his kind of people.
Yeah, this is a man’s world, all right, but Ottway can’t stop daydreaming about his beautiful wife, who “left” him (we figure out very early that it’s a euphemism – she’s dead). Ottway is not only depressed, he’s self-pitying – ddoesn’t want to interact with the guys, even those who mean well. Just wants to sit and brood. So when he and his crew climb on the small plane to a remote drilling site, Ottway makes it clear he wants to be left alone to stew and seethe and simmer in peace.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know what happens next: The plane crashes in the wilderness, wiping out most of the crew. The ones who remain must decide quickly whether they have the strength, courage and determination to try to survive out there, and if they’re willing to band together to do it. Since they lack an acknowledged leader, it’s a struggle making a plan, but the urgency of doing so resides not only in the subzero temperatures, primitive conditions and lack of communication with the outside. It seems that a pack of wolves immediately descends upon them, and the beleaguered survivors must decide how to fight back, or literally get eaten alive.
Yes, it descends from dark and grim to downright atavistic. But somewhere along the way, the remaining guys get into a discussion about faith. The first impetus is when they have to dispose of the bodies killed in the plane crash, and at least one of them thinks that some words ought to be spoken before they move on (this is reminiscent of Robert Duvall playing Gus McCrae in “Lonesome Dove,” saying virtually the same thing, and the prayer here is just as halting and ineloquent, but at least sincere). Later on, the men are sitting around the campfire (necessary to keep the wolves at bay as well as for warmth), and talk about what they think is “out there.” One seems to hold traditional beliefs, but another quite flatly says that dead is dead, and there’s nothing after that.
Ottway, for his part, has already gently helped a panicking, wounded, dying man by telling him to focus on someone he loves, and who will come to take him, and that the sensation, when it arrives, will be warm and satisfying, and the man seems to settle down and die in peace. The others are impressed by this, but Ottway later admits that he’s an agnostic, he was just trying to make the guy feel better. Even later, when Ottway finds himself even more exhausted, hounded, hungry and depressed, he glares up at the night sky and demands proof, yells for a sign, promises he’ll believe in exchange for his deliverance.
A sincere believer who is well-versed in the Psalms is not surprised to hear God addressed in strong or challenging language. But biblically, anyway, demanding a sign from God usually doesn’t produce the desired result. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that God doesn’t exist – only that He has His own agenda about requiring faith.
Can this kind of rough-hewn action/adventure epic produce a decent sophomoric theological discussion? Yes. But little else of consequence.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.