Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Maintain Hope In Adverse Meteorological Conditions

I've always found it difficult to get next to Stephen King. Having never read any of his books, it's difficult to tell whether he's a mediocre writer or just poorly served by those who adapt his work, but as a general rule most of his stuff leaves me cold. Maybe it's just the wheat-to-chaff ratio that's the problem, given the sheer number of stories he's written (Wikipedia lists almost sixty novels and over a dozen short story collections) and the desperate rush to turn each and every one into a movie or TV series (I believe the current total of adaptations is somewhere around ninety), maybe it's hardly surprising if a lot of what is churned out doesn't appeal. Certainly there are some genuinely impressive examples; although The Stand is the only one that really springs to mind specifically from his horror oeuvre [1], and even that is marred by a lack of logic, crappy dialogue, and one of the worst endings in fictional history.

So I was kinda bummed to see trailers for The Mist, which looked really quite interesting until King's name swam up on screen. I considered maybe giving it a whirl on the off-chance, missed it at the cinema anyway, and eventually finally got round to watching it on DVD on Sunday night.

And it's fantastic. Seriously. OK, so a story in which so many different extra-dimensional creatures appear probably needed a much higher effects budget (the monsters look just about plausible in the mist, but in the harsh light of day they're somewhat less than impressive), but the monsters aren't really the point, and it's always nice when you can say that about a monster movie.

We'll get the plot out of the way first. The day after a massive thunderstorm David Drayton, his son Billy, and his acerbic neighbour Norton are shopping for supplies in a local convenience store when Dan Miller runs in screaming about his friend being taken by something in the mist. Minutes later an impenetrable fog descends, and those trapped inside the shop have to decide what they're going to do.

So far, so ordinary. Frank Darabont mentioned the 1944 film Lifeboat as one of the influences he considered in directing the film, which gives you some idea of how old the basic idea is. What matters, in The Mist as in Lifeboat, is how the characters react to the situation. It's a study of the human response to what Dashboard Confessional called "rapid hope loss."

Many of the film's characters find themselves caught inside a triangle of hope, duty, and despair, and the fascination (and ultimately tragedy) comes in watching each character as they gradually slide toward the latter. For Frank, the hope is that his wife, back at the house, is still alive, but his duty is to keep his son safe inside the grocery store. For Mrs Carmody, the hope is that she will get to Heaven following the End Times she is sure have finally arrived, and her duty is to try and take as many people with her when all that ascending kicks off. One woman leaves the store moments after the mist arrives, determined to find her children, in defiance of what might be lurking outside. Others assume duties in order to shore up their hope; Ollie becomes the primary defender of the group as their best shot with the only gun, and Hattie asks to be allowed to look after Billy whenever possible (she is the only character in the film to actually drive home this point, she specifically states that her duty to Billy is the only way to stop losing all hope herself).

There are other characters, though, that eschew responsibility. Jim Grondin encourages the bag-boy Norm to go out into the mix to fix their generator, despite Miller's warning and Frank's descriptions of strange sounds outside. When Norm is attacked by carnivorous tentacles from beyond space, Grondin freaks out and runs for cover as Frank and Ollie try to stage a rescue. Without sufficient strength, though, Frank can only watch as Norm is dragged into the mist by the unseen monster, at which point Grondin argues Frank is guilty of not describing the threat well enough (he later implicitly apologises for blaming Frank, though he doesn't really go so far as to take responsibility himself). Later in the film, Grondin comes across a survivor, tied up in webbing, and again freaks out rather than trying to rescue the victim [2]. This second failure, and the following massacre, causes his mind to snap completely. At this point he joins the growing religious cult of Mrs Carmody, in affect placing his hope and his duty in her hands.

Carmody is probably the most important character in the film, and certainly the most interesting. For her hope is never really in question (though she does allow herself one moment of weakness in prayer), every disaster that saps morale from the rest of the group only adds to her conviction that she was right all along, and that God's vengeance is at hand. Nor does she waver in what she sees as her duty to preach to the masses that they might be saved. As a direct result, she has a man sacrificed to the monsters outside (for the crime of working at the military base that was likely the source of the mist), and ends up being shot when she tries to prevent others from leaving the store. The message seems clear, it's one thing to balance hope and duty against despair, but quite another to try to force those things onto others. Of course, it isn't quite as clear cut as that, whilst Carmody dies in the process of "saving" her flock, it cannot be doubted that the fate of her followers is, as far as we see, better than that of anyone who attempts escape. Since she gives the impression of truly being willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good, perhaps she ultimately got what she wanted, albeit in a very different form to the one she expected it to take.

So what exactly is the answer? Part of the fun lies in the fact that it's so hard to find. The mist is not a homogeneous, predictable evil. Some die the instant they leave the store, others get some distance, some are never heard from again, and may even have survived. There is no magic formula. What is certain, though, is that hope is the keystone. At the end of the film Frank, Billy and three other survivors escape the shop in a car, only to find Frank's wife dead at home, and then ultimately to run out of gas miles down the highway, with no end to the mist in sight. There are only four bullets left in the gun Ollie carried until his death at the shitty end of a giant praying mantis claw, and Frank, finally out of hope, shoots each one of his passengers in the head before exiting the car, waiting for the mist to claim him.

Instead, the military arrive, using flamethrowers to destroy the remnants of the alien horde as the fog begins to retreat. Had Frank held on to his hope just a little bit longer, his son would still be alive. The brutal point is rammed home as a refugee truck passes carrying the woman who first left the store, along with her two children. Her hope got her to safety, though again the film leaves no easy answers: her salvation came from her hope and her duty lying in the same direction; Frank's were separated for so long that he never had the chance to follow her example.

It's to the film's credit that it suggests hope as necessary to survival but in no way sufficient. By its very nature, hope cannot be built on guarantees. The message here is not "here is how to win", but "here is how to avoid certain defeat".

Even so, it's a message worth remembering.

[1] Well, 1408 was quite interesting in places, but given that a) that's mainly due to tension building that is entirely cinematic, and b) it falls apart like a motherfucker towards the end, I'm not sure how much credit to give to King.

[2] Admittedly, said victim then burst after thousands of alien spiders hatched out of his body, but there was no way Jim could have known that at the time.

1 comment:

jamie said...

I've heard very good things about the film, but suffice to say I can't really read your article for fear of spoilers. Glad to hear you liked it though, I'll certainly give it a try!