The Mist

The Mist

As science fiction, monster movies go, this adaptation of the Stephen King novella The Mist is quite good. Maybe that’s faint praise since I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but even without any such qualifications, I can say I enjoyed this movie more than not.

The premise of the film is that there is some kind of fog or mist that floats into a small town, and that turns out to conceal monsters of some kind, which, as monsters are wont to do, kill people in ways that spray a lot of blood around. The monsters, and this strange mist that apparently somehow sustains them, seem to have been released by a major electrical storm, mysterious experiments at a nearby military base, or a combination of both. (Maybe the storm damaged some structure where they were being kept in secret at the base, and that loosed them on the surrounding area.)

There’s a dramatic sequence in Hitchcock’s The Birds where people are temporarily holed up in a diner watching the mayhem outside, and people are bickering about what to believe and what not to believe, or babbling about what it all means and how it’s a just punishment, or turning on each other, and Tippi Hedren slaps an irrational woman who’s hurling accusations at her.

The bulk of this movie is that scene writ large. A bunch of people have taken refuge in a grocery store. Little by little, they get more evidence of what lurks outside, and what peril they’re in. Some of them are picked off in skirmishes with the monsters.

Soon they’re forming factions and turning against each other in Lord of the Flies fashion, with a crazy Bible lady being the most evil instigator. (Like in The Birds, there’s a scene where she is—deservedly—slapped by another woman. She later gets a can of peas in the face as well.)

So really there are two main things going on with this movie. One, it’s a science fiction movie where they’re trying to escape and they’re fighting monsters and such, and, two, it’s a psychological study (it’s been compared to a Twilight Zone episode) of what extremely stressful and novel situations bring out in people.

The second of those two is clearly the more “important,” and it’s what one would expect me to be more in tune with, but that’s also going to be a function of a movie’s structure and how well it handles these two aspects. When the “human” stuff is perfunctory and clichéd, I’m more interested in the monsters. But (more often in foreign and indie films) when the psychological issues are the focus and the supernatural stuff is just tossed in to provide the necessary context for them, then I’m more likely to concentrate on those human elements.

I experienced The Mist—compared to typical Hollywood movies anyway—as unusually good in the first respect, and mixed, maybe a little above average, in the second.

The science fiction storyline had me interested pretty much the whole way. There is solid suspense concerning many matters: What is the nature of these monsters? Are they all of one type or are they varied? If they’re varied, are they allied? Do they have intelligence, are they able to carry out plans, etc., or are they like a bunch of giant killer plants or bugs or something that do what they do from instinct? What does the mist have to do with these monsters? Is the mist itself poisonous or in any way dangerous to humans? What is the origin of the monsters; what is the connection with the military base? How big an area is covered by this mist; how far have the monsters spread—just a few hundred square feet to cover part of this small town, several square miles, several hundred square miles, the whole world? Why is no one rescuing these people; as far as cops and military and such, who is left and what are they doing? Will these folks in the grocery store survive?

And many more, I’m sure.

Ultimately zero of these questions are answered in a ridiculous, disappointing way that had me rolling my eyes, which is pretty impressive in itself for this genre. Some are answered in an intriguing way I liked, some are answered in an OK way, some are answered only very partially or vaguely, and some are not answered at all.

I’m simple-minded about these things and ideally want clear solutions to all mysteries and questions by the time a movie ends (at least as far as just the narrative of what happened; I don’t mean I want all matters of moral complexity and such to be settled and not open to further debate or question), and The Mist doesn’t do that, but then no movie does. This one’s about average in the quantity of information it reveals, while being well above the norm in the quality of the information and the skillfulness with which it reveals it.

So really the monster movie part held my interest very well, and the payoff did not disappoint, including the very end, which packs a punch (though it should be noted, it is possible to shoot two people with one bullet if you position them right).

Indeed, because the psychological stuff is only OK, there were multiple times I found myself getting impatient with that and wanting the movie to get back to the matters of what this mist was, what the monsters were going to do next, etc.

Too many of the conflicts and other interactions in the grocery store aren’t believable. Like the one guy trying to alert people he’d heard something trying to get in, and receiving in response a non sequitur denunciation for acting superior because he graduated from college and some of them didn’t. Or the other fellow getting indignant because he’s convinced some of them are inventing evidence as a practical joke on him, which just makes zero sense in the context of their circumstances and what they’ve already experienced.

Like in Cube, these people fall too easily and too quickly into relationships of familiarity and conflict. (A movie’s only so long I suppose, so sometimes they have to do a little psychological fast forwarding.)

Or worst is the lame romantic interlude (thankfully very brief) between two flirtatious young people in the store room in the midst of all this.

What develops into the main conflict—the crazy Bible lady and her growing influence as the situation worsens and people get desperate—is unrealistic to some extent as well, but it sort of works. Yes, it’s over the top, but in identifying irrational, fundamentalist religion as a prime source of insanity and bringing out the worst in people, I think it’s on the money.

Some of the scenes with her and the mob that forms around her are as chilling as they’re intended to be. Her defiant underdog insistence that she and her faith are constantly oppressed and ridiculed captures very nicely the attitude of the Religious Right, and the contemporary Right in general. I also liked her rant near the end that tied it all in with a generalized fear and distrust of modernity, that smarty-pants types who look down on the likes of her are now getting their comeuppance for secularism and science and abortion and walking on the moon and all the rest. That kind of anti-intellectualism and resentment and fear of being socially inferior is an important undercurrent in a lot of the Religious Right and tea-bagger type ugliness (even if it’s not all that likely they’d articulate it in real life as she does here).

So even if some of the human dynamics within the grocery store don’t ring true, the general theme that in a time of desperation some people will respond poorly and be as big a threat to each other as the monsters are certainly does ring true. As does the notion that kooky religious stuff (the one area of life where even in the calmest of times people give themselves full permission to be as irrational as they please) will be a big part of any such deterioration into savagery.

This movie has somewhat more “action” than The Road, and so gets a leg up in maintaining interest in that sense. But I would still say The Road—in its unrelentingly grim atmosphere and greater realism—is the more powerful, superior film.

But not by a lot. I was pleasantly surprised The Mist turned out to be quite close to the quality of The Road. It’s a winner.

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