Cinematic Soulmates: The Mist and War of the Worlds

Now that the War on Terror™ is finally over (and America totally won!  USA!  USA!), it seems like now is as good a time as any to look at a pair of recent films that examine the fear, anger and paranoia that emerged in the wake of September 11.  Both The Mist (2007) and War of the Worlds (2005) serve as allegories for that tragic day in 2001, but much like the classic cautionary science fiction films released during the height of the Cold War, they reinterpret the horrific real-world events through the lens of a good old fashioned monster movie narrative.  However, while both films ostensibly cover the same thematic ground, they each approach the material in slightly different ways.

In both films the outsider, or other, becomes a literal monster.  In The Mist, the invaders are nightmarish Lovecraftian beasts we cannot hope to understand, while in War of the Worlds they are an overwhelming force of generic looking aliens from Mars, a planet that is essentially one giant desert (a fairly obvious parallel for anyone even remotely paying attention).  In each film, the invaders sweep in quickly and without warning, descending on a wholly unsuspecting populace that is caught completely off guard, due in large part to their own comfortable sense of complacency.  The calm normality of everyday life is shattered by an attack from beyond our borders, and the audience must now follow along as the characters struggle both to survive and to understand what has happened.  But while War of the Worlds focuses mainly on the death and destruction that is caused from without, The Mist goes a step further and posits that the true danger comes from within, in the form of our own fear and suspicion.

With The Mist, director Frank Darabont wanted to tap into our primal fears, and populated his film with enough slimy tentacled monsters and creepy-crawlies to make even the most hardened horror geek’s skin crawl.  At the same time, however, Darabont wanted to examine how those same fears often get the best of us, and cause us to work against our own best interests.  For Darabont, hope is the essential ingredient to survival, and it is only when we have lost hope that we have lost everything.  Since it is often our own fear that leads us to abandon hope, Darabont fills his film with fears both known and unknown, assaulting his characters with one tragedy after another until they essentially beg for the sweet relief of death.  Worst of all, they have nowhere to run to, since the monsters within are every bit as bad as the monsters without.

The Mist plays on the audience’s fears in a number of ways, but it is most effective when it attempts to evoke real world terror.  For example, early in the film there is a shot of the mist rolling in to the town of Bridgton, Maine.  The fog moves quickly, and practically swallows up everything in its path as panicked people flee from it.  The whole scene bears a striking resemblance to the videos of people racing away from the massive dust cloud that spread out from Ground Zero, and anyone who remembers watching that footage when it aired would undoubtedly feel icy cold fear in the pit of their stomach as that scene unfolded on screen before them.

The parallels run deeper than that, though.  Take the scene when Norm (Chris Owen) is sent outside to fix the generator by Jim (William Sadler) and Myron (David Jensen).  It is not too much of a stretch to read this scene as a commentary on the modern American military, in which old men send eager young men off to war (and all too often an early grave).  Then there is the scene in which Ollie (Toby Jones) informs the others that the monsters could get in at any time since the entire front of the store is plate glass, a sentiment that echoes the repeated warnings that the terrorists hit us once, and could attack us again at any time.

The film is chock full of such moments, and they all serve to terrorize the viewer far more effectively than a badly rendered CGI tentacle ever could.  Indeed, the scenes of Mrs. Carmody ranting about expiation and sacrifices while people listen in rapt attention is far more terrifying than giant spiders with big novelty teeth (even if said spiders have the most horrific gestation cycle ever put to film *shudder*).  This is not to belittle the efforts of the special effects artists that worked on the film, far from it.  I bring it up merely to point out that the psychological horror is much more frightening than the more overt jump scares, and that when it comes right down to it, man is a great deal scarier than any imaginary monster.

War of the Worlds, on the other hand, tends to focus more on the threat from outside, and devotes only a short amount of screen time to showing how fear and paranoia can work to destroy us from within.  While those emotions are touched on, it is anger that rules here.  People in this film are mad that we got attacked, and they want nothing more than to fight back, to hurt those who hurt us.  How do we know this?  Rebellious teenager Robbie Ferrier (Justin Chatwin), son of our dashing everyman dockworker hero Ray Ferrier (played by Tom Cruise, natch), says as much through gritted teeth as he tries to hop on an army caravan and go off into battle against the enemy.

Indeed, director Steven Spielberg takes great pains to ensure that his film’s real world parallels are somewhat more overt than those in The Mist, which is not all that subtle to begin with.  At one point, Ray’s precocious daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) asks if these attacks are the result of “the terrorists” (I have to wonder if that line will be changed to “Is it the hippies?” in 20 years time), thus ensuring that the audience completely understands just who it is these alien invaders are standing in for.  Nonetheless, the film does a stellar job of capturing those feelings of confusion and dread we all felt when they announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

For example, there is the scene when Ray and his neighbors are watching the storm clouds form off in the distance.  As they stand there and stare off into the distance, they resemble the citizens of New York staring up at the World Trade Center and wondering just what the hell is going on.  Shortly after that, there is a shot of Ray sitting under his table covered in the ashes of his neighbors, which harkens back to some of the most gut wrenching photographs to come out of the tragedy on 9/11.  And then of course there is the scene in which Robbie runs up the hill to join the battle against the aliens, and Ray finally has to let him go, which is obviously meant to evoke the scores of young Americans who eagerly marched off to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early days of the War on Terror.  War of the Worlds may have a completely obvious subtext (so obvious in fact that one could even call it text, I suppose), but it still manages to explore its subject in an elegant and powerful manner.

The film falters a bit in the second act, when it turns from the threat without to the threat within.  After Robbie disappears over the hillside and is seemingly consumed by a massive fireball, a distraught Ray and Rachel retreat to the basement of a nearby house where they meet Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a man who is completely overcome with fear and paranoia.  He rants and raves and constantly threatens to give their position away to the enemy, and constantly mutters to himself about digging in and fighting back.  For a moment, it seems like the film is trying to say that the people like Harlan and Robbie are wrong, and that we need to find another solution to this problem than violence.  Then that track is completely abandoned when Ray bludgeons Harlan to death with a shovel, and its right back to blowing up aliens with grenades and rocket launchers.  The invaders are defeated soon after when they catch colds, which almost seems like a tacit endorsement of biological warfare.  Overall, the opening of the film is much stronger than the conclusion, but it is still worth a look.

It should come as no surprise that of all the genres out there, horror has long been the best at capturing the dominant fears of a society during any given era.  This is evident in the alien invasion films of the 1950s, in which the aliens stood in for the godless Communists who were constantly threatening to overrun America during the decades of the Cold War (or so we were told).  A more recent example is the rise of “torture porn” (films like Saw and Hostel) in the wake of the Bush Administration’s advancement of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a viable tactic for gathering information.  The Mist and War of the Worlds both belong to this long tradition of swapping out our real world fears with imagined ones, and while they may not give us any lasting insight into the horrible events they are portraying, they both manage to a damn good job of scaring the hell out of the audience while being massively entertaining.

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