I have this theory that George Lucas is responsible for Liam Neeson's late-career transformation into what a gossip-rag hack might term “the thinking man's action star.” (The furiously entertaining Jason Statham, on the other hand, would be the popcorn-muncher's action star.) The turning point I talk about is, of course, the widely reviled Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, where Neeson must have discovered, for the first time, the perks of playing to the gallery.

His memorable parts, from earlier, fumed with lofty historical rhetoric. He was Ethan Frome, Oskar Schindler, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Jean Valjean — now, over and over, he's just The Big Lug You Don't Want to Piss Off. His rhetoric, these days, is mythical, warmed-up leftovers from Qui-Gon Jinn's pop-existential manual. In Joe Carnahan's The Grey, Neeson, as John Ottway, is once again the Jedi master in charge of padawans who must be taught the way of things. Only, it isn't outer space any longer. The action now unspools in the interstices of the soul.

That's a strange place to be for a film whose premise points at a solid, frill-free B-movie. The opening stretch establishes Ottway as an expert shot — his job is to protect a crew of oil workers from wolves. (This is Alaska, and the frames are saturated with so much snow that the film, justly, should have been titled The White.) On the way home from work, their plane runs into a blizzard. Its guts are ripped apart with stomach-churning audio effects that sound like the gates of hell juddering open.

And Ottway and his colleagues find themselves in a survival movie, a band of bickering brothers who must face knee-deep snow, cliffs, snowstorms, rapids, and, most terrifying of all, packs of ravenous wolves, whose disembodied eyes, in the dark, light up like stars in an eerie sky. We brace ourselves, now, for a creature-feature, with nothing more in its sights than (a) who will be eaten up next, and (b) who, along with Ottway, will make it to the end.

But in an early scene, after the crash, Carnahan reveals that he's after something higher — a B+ movie perhaps. Ottway and a few other survivors gather around a colleague who is clearly dying. Gasping for breath, the man is unable to comprehend his situation. Ottway tells him, calmly, “You are going to die, that's what's happening.” He doesn't reach for platitudes to reassure a twitching, bleeding, terrified individual drawing his last breaths. “Look at me,” he commands instead. “You're all right.”

The moment is allowed to linger agonisingly, and even after the man dies, Carnahan refuses to cut away from his face. If he is staring into the void, we, along with him, seem to be doing the same, and the film has transmuted into Robinson Crusoe-meets-Walden, grappling with higher thoughts and, sometimes, even a higher power. Long stretches of dialogue (some may label them longueurs) are consecrated to musings about existing versus living, facing fears, and acknowledging that man is, in essence, an animal.

The Grey doesn't always succeed in reconciling its twin ambitions of excitement and existentialism, but Neeson remains a commanding presence throughout. We want him to make it back alive, even if, at the beginning, he was seen seeking death, sticking the muzzle of his rifle into his mouth. Irony seems to be a popular contrivance with the makers of castaway movies. Even the best of them, Cast Away, toyed with the notion of a FedEx employee, to whom being on time was everything, stranded on an island where time had no meaning.

And, of course, the narrative outline of The Grey has been a popular contrivance in Hollywood for decades: Man deposited in a hostile, alien environment learns that he is not the alpha creature after all. Set this story in space, and you get Alien. Set it in water, and you get Jaws. Set it on earth, and you get everything from the Allies-in-Germany movies to The Lord of the Rings. The Grey is a testament as much to human will as the endless malleability of this single-line plot.

The Grey

Genre: Existential action

Director: Joe Carnahan

Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney

Storyline: Plane-crash survivors battle the elements and wolves.

Bottomline: Too talky, but Neeson pulls it through