There’s Something in the Mist: Frank Darabont’s The Mist

Has writer/director Frank Darabont been weighed down by the heavy legacy of his first feature film? The Shawshank Redemption remains one of the most popular movies ever made, if not quite (yet?) accepted into the canon. The Mist, after The Green Mile, is Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation, so far only having made only one feature not derived from a King work. After two prison yarns (one set very much in the real world, the other with a dash of the supernatural), Darabont now turns to one of King’s more characteristically gruesome horror tales.

King writes at great length about classic horror movies in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, and The Mist squarely fits into one kind of classic b-movie structure. We open in a seemingly bucolic lakeside town with simmering tensions between local residents and wealthier weekenders summering in lovely lakeside homes. A mysterious, mostly unseen, and definitely hostile alien force traps a random assortment of local personalities in a supermarket. The horror works best before we actually see any evidence of the supernatural; for example, a character bolts into the store, full of nervous but not yet terrified citizens, crying the simultaneously eerie and hilarious line “There’s something in the mist!” For home viewers, a big reveal was spoiled right in the DVD menus: one of the adversaries is a very biblical swarm of giant beastly locusts.

The Mist
They’re heeeeeeere…

Like virtually every zombie movie ever made, a cross-section of society is trapped in a confined location, under siege by unstoppable forces. The microcosm includes representatives of all the usual suspects, including a top New York City lawyer (because we all know NYC sharks are more venal than the regular kind) Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a couple of good ol’ boys, the town cutie pie, a few handsome young lads from the nearby military base, and the resident looney fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The Mist is not above another classic horror movie cliche: the virginal good girl kisses a boy and dies horribly in the very next scene. The heroes that arise are, of course, unlikely: a grocery bagger (an interesting character with a lot left up to us to fill in: he’s not a young man, and he’s got brains and skills, so how did he end up in such a dead-end job?) and a relatively wealthy artist David (an outsider to the town, viewed as elitist).

We first see “our hero” (more on that later) David (Thomas Jane) in the very first shot. He’s an illustrator of movie posters: I spotted three shout-outs to genre movies both actual and potential: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Stephen King’s own Dark Tower. He’s a macho, badass painter, using the back of his own hand as a palette, and bitching about studios cobbling together cheap posters in Photoshop.

Speaking of craven movie studios, sometimes studios whitewash action and horror movies to cater to more lucrative PG-13 audiences (like Blade III: Trinity, extraordinarily lame & tame compared to Guillermo Del Toro’s outrageously gory Blade II – vampire autopsy, anyone?). The Mist is one of the few R-rated horror movies I’ve seen that might have been better with less gore and profanity. Most especially the profanity – I’m certainly guilty of salty language in my own vocabulary, but the overall F-bomb count in The Mist is so absurdly high that it almost seems as if the filmmakers were deliberately striving for a record.

The Mist
Play misty for me?

Overall, I’d have to say I really did not care for the movie, finding it overwritten. At numerous points, characters explicate the plot, elapsed time, and character arcs – to paraphrase an example: “It’s only been two days, and Mrs. Carmody has already turned everybody against us… in only two days!” It’s also too reliant on CG gore for a story than depends on the horror of the unseen (also where M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise great Signs falls down). But the best bits of the movie are squeezed between the CG set pieces, and the entire affair is redeemed by an utterly astonishing ending. Although I normally don’t concern myself with spoilers on The Dork Report, it would be cruel of me to reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, it’s impossible to imagine how a script this bleak was financed and distributed (by Dimension Films). I also wish I had seen the movie in theaters so I could see firsthand how an average audience would react to such an ending. The big downer at the end of Cloverfield did not go over well, to say the least, and The Mist makes that one look positively wimpy.

Like Signs and Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, The Mist depicts a massive alien invasion from the perspective of regular folk, as opposed to the global view taken by movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Independence Day. But The Mist has a truer ending than any of these examples. The core theme is of the roles people assume under extreme duress. Their illusions about themselves are amplified and they believe their own myth. Just as the fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody compensates for a lifetime of exile from healthy human interaction by elevating herself into a demagogue (I’m reminded of the characterization of the young Adolf Hitler in the movie Max, as he first finds the mass adulation he desires as he rallies a crowd into a racist frenzy), David falls all too well into the role of hero; he never complains when people turn to him for strength and leadership. The so-called “hicks” that fight him in the beginning of the film were right; he does think he’s smarter than everybody else. In movies, he’s exactly the kind of guy other characters automatically defer to in dire situations: So-and-so’s dying of third degree burns? Tell David! What do we do next? Ask David!

The utter demolition of the stock hero character type is so surprisingly strong that it’s practically subversive. I had thought Postmodern genre films had petered out after their late-90s golden age of Scream, Starship Troopers, and Wild Things. But The Mist is a new entry in the Postmodern genre cycle, in the sense that it comments critically upon the horror movie genre, and yet still actually is a horror movie. The Mist may be a monster movie, but it’s not about a Thing, an Alien, or a Creature from the Black Lagoon; it reveals the standard hero character to be a kind of monster himself.

It’s the end of the world in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain

Michael Crichton’s original novel The Andromeda Strain was first adapted into a feature film in 1971, and now into a television miniseries from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott. This 2008 incarnation is part feel-bad thriller, part wish fulfillment. As we thrill to the speculative illustration of how civilization might suddenly come to an end, we also can only hope the government does in fact have such an elaborate and high-tech procedure in place for identifying and containing new contagious disease outbreaks.

The Andromeda Strain
Good times, good times

The original book is only nominally about a supervirus, evidently of extraterrestrial origin, that threatens the human race. It is actually more about how intelligent, well-meaning people can make subtle errors of judgement that may cascade into catastrophe (Chrichton would also employ Chaos Theory as a key theme in his Jurassic Park novels). But the miniseries complicates this interesting theme with added government venality (a basically honorable president is undercut by a corrupt chief of staff), the media (a drug addicted reporter breaks the cover-up), and the environment (strip mining of the ocean floor leads to the crisis). To give but one example of the diminishing returns: in the book, a simple unnoticed glitch in a supposedly perfect computer system causes a dangerous communication blackout at the worst possible time. It’s both more plausible and more suspenseful than the miniseries version of events, in which General Mancheck (Andre Braugher) deliberately creates the blackout, to everyone’s mild and temporary frustration.

The book is not without its flaws, particularly an undramatic ending in which the continuously adapting virus eventually mutates into harmlessness. But the miniseries disappoints by giving the virus a definitive origin, indicating it is expressly targeted towards humans, and showing its definitive defeat.

The Andromeda Strain
The Andromeda Strain cast checks in for the long haul

Miscellaneous other thoughts:

• Mikael Salomon’s direction is very boring and staid, except for a wildly over-the-top decontamination procedure that is filmed in a stylized, almost erotic fashion.

• The miniseries is probably one of the talkiest sci-fi movies and/or TV shows I’ve ever seen. The bulk of the action is set in a single interior location, and nearly every scene comprises heated conversations in laboratories or over teleconferences.

• The miniseries is laden with even more pseudoscientific bullshit than Crichton’s original novel: wormhole-enabled time travel and nanotech buckyballs from the future are the order of the day. The whole thing ends in the kind of temporal paradox that typically makes a plot point in shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek.

• The miniseries updates the book’s euphemism of “unmarried man” into “don’t ask don’t tell” territory. It seems fabulous Major Keane (Rick Schroder) is a friend of Dorothy.

• Spot the homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds!

• Why does the underground facility begin to disintegrate during the run-up to setting off an atom bomb? Wouldn’t there just be a countdown and then an explosion?

• This blogger, a longtime fan of the TV show Lost, is happy to see Daniel Dae Kim in a starring role. But the Korean actor is unfortunately cast as a Chinese stereotype.

• Benjamin Bratt is really terrible, giving the proverbial phone-it-in performance. He delivers every line with the same intonation, whether it’s saying goodbye to his family for possibly the last time or announcing humanity’s first discovery of an alien life form.