This is a busy season for film folk, what with catching up on all the movies we missed earlier in the year. But the staff took a field trip to the local multiplex and caught The Mist this weekend. And we have a few thoughts.
We won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it, but unless you live under a rock you've undoubtedly heard that the ending is a downer. And it is -- delightfully enough. It's a refreshing throwback to a time before studios "tested" every film before release, insisting that any ending that doesn't leave the test audience in a happy, toe-tapping mood has to be lightened up. Cinema Sideshow approves of this ending, depressing though it may be. Or, perhaps, because it's depressing. We're funny that way.
Overall, The Mist works very well, but it suffers from one of Stephen King's biggest flaws as a storyteller, and Frank Darabont's biggest flaws as a director -- the characters are all one-dimensional types, with not a one of them undergoing any noticeable growth during their journey. They exist almost in symbolic terms: The Everyman/Artist Hero, The Religious Zealot, The Redneck, The Feisty Old Lady, The Stubborn Guy Who Won't Listen to Reason. They're plot devices, not people.
This singularity of characterization means that King's characters don't always do things that make normal, human sense. They're puppets set in place to say and do things that serve the plot, as opposed to complex characters who make choices which drive the plot. This means that Andre Braugher, as The Stubborn Guy Who Won't Listen to Reason, eventually becomes utterly baffling to the viewer -- there's a point at which his behavior simply doesn't make any sense beyond the fact that King needed a guy to perform a certain action, so Stubborn Guy had to cling to his stubbornness no matter what.
In King's books, however, the writer has time to lay groundwork, and that goes a long way towards making up for the shallowness of his characters. The people in King's books may not be deep, but they do have backstories, and the best of King's works (like, say, "The Shining" and "The Stand") focus first on the people, then on the stuff that happens to them. Unlike some writers (Deen Koontz comes readily to mind), King isn't especially concerned with why evil happens -- his stories are about what people do after the evil shows up. For the reader, this creates first a) intimacy with the characters, then b) shared experience as The Bad Stuff Happens. King's books are often overly long, a little sloppy, and full of those broadly written types rather than complicated characters ... but he knows how to make you care about the people, if only because you learn all about them first so you're already identifying with them when the horror hits.
Frank Darabont's adaptations of King's works (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist) are, on the other hand, efficient in the extreme and don't leave a lot of room for ambiguity or subtlety. In The Mist, the Everyman/Artist Hero has to protect his child and, ultimately, attempt to lead a group to safety. This doesn't allow him any time to be concerned about the wife he left at home. The screenplay doesn't have any room for such minor issues, and Our Hero never shows a moment of worry about his wife's fate until he decides, almost as an afterthought, to swing by the house on his way out of town at the end of the film. Having been introduced to the family unit at the beginning of the movie, his complete disregard of her rang false -- and, ironically, it could have been fixed by just a couple of lines of dialogue, should Darabont have bothered to add them.
As a monster movie, The Mist is effective but it lacks the depth that could make it genuinely great. One can look at John Carpenter's The Thing, or Alien, or last year's Korean flick The Host -- or, hell, even Lake Placid -- and see that monster movies can feature well-crafted, multidimensional characters. When they do, the movie sticks with you, and it's even more effective while you're watching it. As tense as The Mist was, at no point do we find ourselves caring a whit about the fate of the people in the film, and this hobbles any real emotional power that the story might otherwise have.
As a counterpoint to The Mist we'd offer 2005's The Descent, which spends enough time and effort on establishing the personalities of the people involved that the audience is genuinely concerned about what happens to them, then gradually ratchets up the tension so that the last third of the film is white-knuckle scary. If the The Mist was able to tease even a bit of that emotional investment out of the audience, it could stand as a truly top-notch monster movie. But instead it's a just a solid fast-food flick -- decently crafted, efficiently directed, but forgettable once the lights come back up.