Two monster movies that use a convenient device to hide the monsters most of the time, with very different tones. One lives up to the hype and the other doesn’t. One is too short and the other’s too long. Let’s have them duke it out. Fight!
1. The Hype
The Mist is based on an excellent Stephen King story that was made into an audio book and an interactive computer game (in the 80’s, text adventure). It has a lot to live up to. Everyone was excited to see another Stephen King adaptation from Frank Darabont, who made the beloved film The Shawshank Redemption. He also made the god-awful movie The Majestic, lest we forget.
Cloverfield had a year-long internet hype campaign that every nerd gasping orgasmic about whether it was Godzilla or Cthulhu. The Slusho website, and legions of Lost fans who loved the Dharma Initiative ARGs and web goofery hailed the genius of J.J. Abrams, conveniently forgetting that he also wrote Armageddon.
2. The Stories
The Mist is about a storm that hits a small Maine town, and the mist that descends upon a grocery store full of people getting supplies. There are… things in the mist, the screams of a victim are heard. The fear of the unknown and how we react to it are the subject of the first act, and then a division emerges between David (Thomas Jane), a young artist with a son, and Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) a bitter fanatic who believes God wants sacrifice before the horrific events will end.
Cloverfield begins at a party full of young Manhattanites celebrating Rob’s new job in Japan. The camera is handed to Hud, to film testimonials from friends. Then the building shakes and the lights flicker, and everyone goes to look what happened. A tanker has exploded, and when everyone leaves the building, the Statue of Liberty’s head is hurled down the street. Something is attacking the city. A small group gathers to try to escape the island, but Rob wants to go to midtown, in the path of the creature, to rescue Beth, the girl he’s leaving.
3. The Monsters
The Mist has a menagerie of bizarre creatures, thought to come from another dimension. The first we see is just the tentacle of a much larger creature, and the movie makes great use of the power of the unknown, by shrouding its scares with the fog. My personal favorite were the huge spiked spiders with what looked like human teeth. That was a nice, creepy touch. Giant flies, demon-like fliers with huge beaks, and hulking crab-like monsters are just some of the things we get. We get a huge pay-off at the end, with a good look at two of the things out there.
Cloverfield‘s monster is shrouded by the buildings of Manhattan. While it is an enormous sea creature of some sort, we only catch glimpses of it for much of the film. It’s also covered with lice of some sort, which look like giant fleas. Their snapping mouths were one of the scarier parts of the film. “Clover,” as the monster is called by fans (it is never named in the film) rampages throughout the city, as the military tries to drive it away. At the end we get several good views of it, and both times get a good scare out of it.
4. The Characters
The Mist has problems with character development. For a movie this long, the neighbor Norton is wasted, and has plot device (and possibly “token”) written all over him. David’s son exists only as a motivator, and people like Jim (William Sadler, “Death” from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey!) make changes in character that make little sense. People panic way too early and become irrational seconds after the mist arrives. My favorites were Ollie (Toby Jones, Truman Capote from Infamous) of course, and the old folks- especially Irene (Frances Sternhagen), an acidic old schoolteacher who steals ever scene she’s in. Ollie is everyone’s favorite as the nerdy type who gets to kick some ass. He’s easily the best crafted character in the film, all thanks to Toby Jones’ underrated skills.
Cloverfield doesn’t have a lot of time for character, being only 85 minutes long. Everything is cut to the bone. Our main companions are Rob the jerky yuppie who gets a sudden change of heart about the girl he loves, Hud the goofy pal of his holding the camera and trying to mack on Marlena, who’s having none of it. She’s pretty witty and resourceful, as is Lily. We learn little about them except how they react to a crisis, and a lot of people had problems caring about what happened to them. To me, the movie was more like an amusement park ride, sort of like Aliens— we didn’t learn a lot about Vasquez or Hudson either.
5. The Endings (here be spoilers, duh)
The Mist‘s ending turned a lot of people off. It is very bleak. The Stephen King story wasn’t quite as bleak, but ambiguous. Hollywood hates ambiguity, and Darabont’s ending leaves none. I knew what was coming, and I must say I liked what happened. It was handled really badly, though. Thomas Jane screaming over their bodies was almost comic, as the soldiers rolled up; and we see the one woman who fled the store, not letting fear keep her from getting to her kids. She’s been rescued. I like the statement that made about giving in to fear when you have a job to do. Open Water had a similar message; if they had just swam immediately, just maybe they’d survive. I would have liked David to run at the soldiers with his empty gun and be put out of his misery, but maybe that’s too bleak. He’s an artist after all, he’ll probably paint another Dark Tower masterpiece with his newfound pain.
Cloverfield also has a bleak ending that people didn’t like. It’s hinted at in the opening credits, where the footage we’re watching is labeled as being found on a media card in the area designated “Cloverfield,” formerly known as Central Park. If you think about it, it’s inevitable. They get to the choppers and one is knocked down in an incredible sequence where we see it spin out of control, from the inside. Miraculously they survive, but the “Hammerdown Protocol,” a final measure against the creature by carpet-bombing midtown, is about to occur. They take shelter underneath one of the arches in the park and wait out the inevitable. Then we’re given a teasing hint of footage of Rob and Beth at Coney Island, and we see an object fall from the sky into the water. Terabytes of text have been typed on message boards all over the net about what it means, and I loved it. It gave me a sense of wonder I haven’t had since seeing Star Wars as a kid. I don’t want to know where the monster comes from, or why it attacked. Let me keep wondering about it. Don’t come up with some stupid “midichlorians” explanation.
6. The Awesome
The Mist creates a palpable sense of dread, with its characters surrounded by a supernatural mist full of murderous and strange creepy-crawlies. Ollie is a good sidekick and a lot of fun. There are some good gore effects as the population gets whittled down, and there are no superheroics here. Even the flies from Dimension X are dangerous, and no one uses gymnastics to beat up a dinosaur or the like. The monsters are huge and we get a great shot at the end of something so enormous that we can barely contemplate the world it came from. I also loved the scenes in the drug store, and with the rope.
Cloverfield is a nonstop runaway train to monster destruction once things start rolling. In the theater, I felt like I got off a rollercoaster when it was over. There’s no music, so the end credits theme, “Roar,” is especially effective. The monster is unique, gigantic, and damn scary. He resembles the Godzilla from the original 1955 Gojira, who showed up out of nowhere to wreak havoc, with no explanation and no safe haven from his wrath. The little critters who fly out of his armpits to feast upon the trust fund kiddies are freaky too, and there’s an awesome introduction to them. We get a somewhat realistic feeling of being there as a monster attacks New York, destroying the Brooklyn Bridge and other landmarks, and there’s no little girl who is mentally in tune with the beast so we can escape or placate it. What little dialogue there is, is actually pretty snappy. “That’s another thing… also terrible” is one of my favorite lines this year.
7. The Suck
The Mist is over 2 hours long, has cardboard characters made for the plot, and a horrible ending. it also has some really bad CG at some points, like the tentacles. The script could have used some trimming here and there, or changes to make Jim’s change more believable, and give more depth to the boy and the neighbor. Also, Mrs. Carmody calls out for sacrifice pretty early on, when I think she should have amped up after she was spared, and felt protected by her vengeful God. The deaths of important characters aren’t chilling enough, either. And finally, the ending. They drive without being attacked until the gas runs out, and then decide to commit suicide. While they are surrounded by other cars. You’d think they might try running to another car. Or have them break down on a stretch of empty highway, which would have been scarier. The music in the third act sounds like Cher being raped by a billy goat, and completely ruins the tone of the film.
Cloverfield is only 85 minutes (with 10 minutes of credits) long. This gives us no time for character development, and others have rightly complained that they don’t care about them. There’s little time to tell us why Rob suddenly feels responsible for Beth, and it’s hard to swallow 4 people walking 70 blocks through a war zone instead of going for the Holland or Battery tunnels after a close call with a monstrosity. The shaky-cam turned a lot of people off, too. It’s a different gimmick than mist to hide your monster, but it works. It just makes 25% of the audience puke into their popcorn. I thought it was overdone when I first saw it, but it’s not that bad on a big-screen TV. I could have used a little more monster, too. The shots on the news would not have been so sparse and choppy. On 9/11, which the film references with every shot, we had to see the smoking towers nonstop until they went down.
8. The Decision
The Mist is a fine horror film with some flaws. It’s no Shawshank Redemption, though it approaches it in length. If you want to see some Lovecraftian critters munch on a bunch of New Englanders, and get reminded that fanatical religion is bad, it’s one of the better monster-horror flicks we’ve gotten in some time. It’s too long and needed another script revision for act one.
Cloverfield is more of a disaster movie than horror, though it does have its scares. I just watched it, and I’d watch it again. I might get distracted during the party scene, but once Clovie shows up it’s a great ride. I’m eager for the sequel, and I hope that they don’t reveal too much about its origins. Some things are best left mysterious.