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Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Miss

WARNING: This is a review of the new movie THE MIST. It will reveal essential plot details. If you do not wish to have the experience of seeing this movie in utter ignorance ruined, you should not read this review. On the other hand, if you at all enjoyed the original Stephen King novella that this movie is based on and you do not want to have slightly over two hours of your life spoiled by watching this truly crappy adaptation of same, then you can read this review, but you should certainly and by all means avoid watching the crappy crappy film itself.

As part of my birthday celebration last night, a bunch of us went out to see The Mist.

Pretty much everything written by Stephen King -- well, everything good, anyway -- lends itself beautifully to cinematic adaptation, most likely because King is such a naturally visual writer. His novella THE MIST is a story I've long thought would be very easy to film, because the characters are pretty basic, the plot is very straightforward, and all the action is extremely cinematic.

Basically, something weird goes down -- King's first person narrator and protagonist never does more than vaguely speculate as to what -- and an eerie fog rolls in -- a fog packed with more flesh-eating horrors than an H.P. Lovecraft collected set. An endless ululating horde of giant carnivorous insects, weird dinosaur-monsters, multi-tentacled acid-exuding nether entities, all with a voracious (if chemically dubious) appetite for human flesh, trap a random assemblage of small town residents in a modest local supermarket. As the story grinds on, more and more of these luckless saps get turned into monster chow, while the survivors huddle hopelessly behind hastily erected barricades of 50lb puppy chow sacks, and try not to completely freak out.

In King's original, our protagonist and a few friends manage to escape the supermarket where pretty much everyone else has already gone homicidally bonkers, scrambling into the hero's four wheel drive and speeding off to search for some kind of sanctuary, where, you know, nobody is trying to sacrifice them all to Baal or something. As the story ends, they are holed up in an abandoned motel for the night, with only the barest glimmer of hope -- a distant voice they may or may not have really heard on the vehicle's radio, saying the name of a city a few hundred miles away.

I knew going into the movie that there was little chance such an uncertain ending would be allowed to stand by any major mainstream Hollywood studio. For one thing, movie audiences like their stories to have definite resolutions, so simply leaving it at "well, maybe they all got eaten, or maybe they somehow survived" wasn't going to fly. And even more than audiences like certain resolutions, they like happy ones. So, while I was hoping against hope that maybe they'd leave the original ending intact, I was fearing the worst -- not only would they rewrite the story to have a definite resolution, but that resolution would be something along the lines of "suddenly the 82nd Airborne parachutes in, blows up all the ugly critters, and everybody lives happily ever after, except for Norm The Bagboy, who got et by the acid spewing tentacles twenty minutes into the first reel".

Which would, to my mind, have been a complete fucking travesty.

I feared that ending, all the way through the movie. I feared it, yet, with the bitter cynicism of someone who has been watching Hollywood studios make my favorite stories into utter garbage for forty years now, I expected it, too.

As it turns out, I underestimated them. Not only did they change the ending to the story to exactly what I figured they probably would, they managed to make it an order of magnitude worse than I was dreading along the way.

It's the ending that really poisoned the film for me. Up until then, it was steadily mediocre-to-almost good -- the plot mostly stuck to the source material, a lot of the dialogue was straight out of the book, and while some of the casting was problematic (Thomas Jane as protagonist David Drayton was a truly appalling mistake, and giving Andre Braugher the role of the Asshole Neighbor was pretty much as bad a move as letting Morgan Freeman play "Red" in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION), other characters were very well evoked indeed (the actor who played Ollie Weeks looked exactly like Ollie Weeks should have).

Occasional diversions from the source material irritated the shit out of me, as they seemed completely unnecessary, other than for purposes of observing moronic horror film conventions (in the book, protagonist David Drayton gets jiggy with fellow survivor Amanda Dunphies; in the film, two new characters are created for no apparent purpose except to have sex together shortly before both of them die horribly gruesome deaths).

Still, the gist of the book made it into the final film treatment, and the overall presentation was always just good enough to make me believe that any second now, the movie might cross some nebulous threshhold and suddenly become really good, or even exceptional.

But it never happened. So much of the essential characterizations from the original novella got dropped or condensed that even Andre Braugher couldn't make the terse, tightly wrapped, overly complex relationship between his asshole neighbor role and the story's protagonist work, and as for Thomas Jane, well, he was swingin' wild in the weeds from start to finish, chewing through his dialogue like a rat trapped in the world's biggest box of Wheaties. (Conversely, Marcia Gay Harden did a great job evoking the sheer raw craziness of that psycho bitch Mrs. Carmody, taking a stock character type that King has been recycling since Carrie White's mom and making her seem as close to three dimensional as anyone could want in a popcorn gobbler like this one.)

Maybe the whole thing was meant to be deliberately lame; certainly, the consistently cheesy special effects, in a time of relatively cheap CGI, had to be calculated to evoke earlier eras of drive in monster flicks with shoestring FX budgets, populated by crappy claymation creatures that looked like some high school chemistry nerd constructed them out of whatever he or she found in the bottles underneath their sink.

Purposefully cheesy or not, the ending's final twist is so cruel as to be nearly sadistic -- the Army does indeed come rolling through to save the day -- mere minutes after Drayton uses the last four bullets in his gun to kill his own child and his three other companions, to spare them being devoured by the monsters in the mist.

Which is pretty stupid, when you think about it. I mean, if they'd just waited another ten minutes before going all Jonestown in a Jeep, they'd have been fine. What was so urgent about getting their brains blown out right that second? Other than it being necessary to the plot, not a goddam thing.

So that's a two-fer... not just a needlessly sick, sadistically cruel twist ending, but an unbelievably pointless one, too.

As a final note, SuperWife points me to Tony Collett's blog, where I see Tony has noted that apparently, King likes the new MIST ending so much that he has asserted that if he'd thought of it when he was writing the novella, that's the ending he would have used.

All of which leads me to say, with utmost respect -- put down the crack pipe, Mr. King. I mean, it's all very well to have the Army roll in with tanks and flamethrowers to blast the living shit out of a bunch of hyperthyroid spiders and albino pterodactyls and even some gigantic unearthly squid with acid-spewing tentacles lolly-gagging around behind the Super Duper waiting for someone to feed it more idiot bagboys, but how, pray tell, did they deal with this:

A shadow loomed out of the mist, staining it dark. It was as tall as a cliff and coming right at us... something came. That is all I can say for sure. It may have been the fact that the mist only allowed us to glimpse things briefly, but I think it just as likely that there are certain things that your brain simply disallows... things of such darkness and horror that they will not fit through the puny human doors of perception.

It was six legged, I know that... it passed directly over us. One of its gray, wrinkled legs smashed down right beside my window, and Mrs. Reppler said later that she could not see the underside of its body, although she craned her neck up to look. She saw only two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers until they were lost to sight...

For the moment it was over the Scout I had an impression of something so big that it might have made a blue whale look the size of a trout -- in other words, something so big that it defied the imagination... it left tracks in the cement of the Interstate, tracks so deep I could not see the bottoms. Each single track was nearly big enough to drop the Scout into.


If THE MIST has any kind of point at all -- and I don't insist that my fiction have any kind of point at all, other than to be entertaining -- certainly it was the notion that mankind is, in the cosmic scheme of things, a very insignificant speck indeed, and we really shouldn't screw around with shit we don't understand. In Jack Nicholson's immortal words, we can't handle the truth. And the very idea that the Army, or, for that matter, any human agency, could somehow successfully resolve the unimaginable horror unleashed on Earth in THE MIST is utterly contrary to the palpable sense of utter futility, helplessness, and despair that suffuses the entire original story like, well, a mist. That the trapped remnants of humanity must continue to struggle for survival to the very bitter end is extremely human, and we cannot help but be fascinated as we observe this process from afar, but that their battle for survival is ultimately futile against the otherworldly legions of mindless predators that have been unleashed by humanity's own hubris is implicit in every word of King's story. (And, in fact, emblematic of all mortality. Nobody gets out of here alive.)

Tacking on a happy ending to a story like this is ridiculous; providing us with a 'happy ending' in which a protagonist we have come to admire loses his mind because it turns out he killed his child and his friends for no reason is appallingly mean spirited and sadistically cruel, a harkening back to the trollish, ghoulish King who clearly cackled in malevolent glee as he heaped gruesome fates on an entire small town of two dimensional characters in NEEDFUL THINGS.

I didn't like that Stephen King and I'd hoped, once he kicked his various vices, that that nasty, unpleasant bastard had gone for good. Guess not. Well, thank God that novelists, unlike George Lucas, can't keep going back and revising their previous works with every new DVD edition. Otherwise, I'm sure we'd have an expanded, rewritten version of THE MIST on the shelves next year, with film director Frank Darabonte's horrible ending pasted on over the original, regardless of just how poorly it fit with the rest of the story.

Just because, apparently, Stephen King never created a character he didn't want to torture in some horrible, horrible fashion.

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