Liam Neeson’s manic intensiveness carries Joe Carnahan’s entertaining but otherwise vacant creature thriller, set in wintry Alaska.[/media-credit]

Wolves are back, but it’s not another “Twilight” sequel. This winter, there is “The Grey,” an existential man-versus-beast flick with more violence than sense and more fun than substance.

“The Grey” is rated R, presumably to keep out immature viewers. But its pudgy, cartoonish wolf monsters would barely convince a zoo-going fourth grader of their authenticity, much less a legal adult.

Beyond the silly character models of the wolves that are so important to the plot, “The Grey” delivers a story that is ultimately more about surviving harsh circumstances than bloodthirsty monster wolves.

“The Grey” focuses its attention on a group of plane crash survivors on their way to Anchorage from their jobs at a remote oil-drilling facility. The survivors try to find their way to help before hordes of inexplicably homicidal wolves kill them.

Liam Neeson (“Unknown”) plays John Ottway, a man whose job is to shoot the wolves that constantly attack the employees at the drilling facility. Flashbacks reveal a former lover of his who calls to him, “Don’t be afraid,” in scenes that add a sheen of sentimentality without any substance.

While Ottway is a flat character who spends the film either leading or brooding, Neeson delivers the part with a persuasive intensity that prevents the rest of the film from falling into cheesiness by a hair-thin margin.

The rest of the characters are all deviant transplants who never reveal much aside from each of their own novel distinctions.

One of the seven survivors has a daughter he mentions whenever possible. Another is an alcoholic. One is an abashed coward who informs the rest of the cast of their impending doom. The supporting cast play to these caricatures so strongly, it is a relief when the wolves finally put one of them out of their misery.

The rest are equally forgettable, as writer/director Joe Carnahan illustrates with their grisly deaths at the jaws of the wolves. The more apathetic a viewer is toward a character, the more satisfying it is to witness their graphic death.

Even the wolves in “The Grey” overact, sometimes melodramatically approaching the humans just to get a scare before walking backwards into the darkness of the woods.

Aside from the eyesore beasts, the visuals in the film are stunning. The blinding white snowfall create the same suspense and mystery as a deep night’s complete darkness.

Carnahan mixes these two elements together to sustain a dangerous atmosphere even in the daytime. The men never appear to be safe, whether it is day or night, and Carnahan expertly crafts the film around a suspense that never wanes.

For viewers going into “The Grey” in search of a fresh take on the horror genre, the film is a success. While the dialogue is sometimes pointless and strained, the action and premise take “Grey” to respectable heights, rendering it a timeless addition to its genre. When one takes “The Grey” in terms of its creature-feature predecessors, the film especially shines as a gem in a community of films that usually go straight to video.

By using an actual species that exists in normal Alaskan conditions, “The Grey” retains an element of realism that no number of stupid-looking wolves can totally dissolve. At its heart, the film is about men on an aimless journey to near-certain death, who are finally learning what they have been living for.

Scenes of the harsh environment come across as beautiful studies of the northern tundra. Filmed in Canada, “The Grey” presents an authentic view of the harsh winters that occur north of the border. Even sitting in the theaters, viewers will feel the cold of Alaskan climes that make Madison look like Miami Beach.

A powerful classical score done by Marc Streitenfield provides much-needed gravity to the “The Grey” not present in any of the characters. The orchestral instrumentals add a thin air of respectability to a film that starts and ends with little perceivable purpose.

“The Grey” is fun and frightening for the viewer who just wants to go along for the ride. Once you spend to much time examining the flashbacks and back stories of all the characters, the plot begins to wear at its seams.

This film offers quick and dirty fun that is different from other releases in recent history. Go if you like wolves, blood and Liam Neeson’s intense facial expressions.

3 stars out of 5