Science in ‘The Mist’

Science in ‘The Mist’ July 8, 2008

(Caution: This post reveals the plot and ending of the film!)

This film, now on general release in the UK, could be described as War of the Worlds meets Lord of the Flies. A collection of ‘ordinary folks’ are trapped in a small town supermarket by an exceptionally thick mist. It soon becomes clear that there is something dangerous in the mist.

The hero is shown as an ordinary Joe – an artist and a father. His first test is to persuade a group of shop staff that there really is something dangerous outside. He’s unable to do so and the man who goes outside to fix a problem is attacked by giant tentacles. Our hero’s courage is not enough to save that life, though he does cut off a piece of tentacle.

He then faces a neighbour who refuses to believe in the monsters and leads a group of people into the mist and to their deaths. It may not be accidental that the neighbour is a lawyer. He’s shown as a person whose life is based on suspicion of his fellows and persuasion rather than respect for truth.

Our hero has therefore lost his first two conflicts with folly. However, an attack by monsters (in which the hero fights bravely) proves the reality of the threat.

Now he must face a different kind of folly in the person of Mrs Carmody, the local religious nutcase. She’s depicted as a vicious crackpot who first declares the monsters to be the demons foretold in the Book of Revelation and then organizes her followers to sacrifice people to them. The anti-religious subtext is clear: religions make absurd claims and foster violence.

When I saw the film, in a quite ordinary London suburb, the audience reaction was even more interesting. They were very hostile to Carmody and greeted her death with applause. I cannot remember the last time I heard an audience applaud a film.

The film explains the monsters as inhabitants of a parallel universe who’ve been let into our universe by the folly of scientists at a local army base. Curiously there is no scientist in the film – three junior soldiers serve as proxies. Despite the need for organized violence and defensive barriers the soldiers play no part in the defence of the supermarket. Their role is to show guilt at what the scientists have done and to attract the hostility of Carmody and her crew.

The hero uses commonsense in accepting the reality of the monsters and organizes people to fight them. He resists both the lawyer’s denial of reality and the religious leader’s determination to interpret events in fantastical term. He plans rationally and acts with speed and courage. He is a rational and humanistic hero – though admittedly not a scientific one.

But he and his team are not perfect. They escape from the store but surrender to premature despair. All but one are dead by the time the Army arrives to save the day with flame throwers and biological protection suits.

The final message then is: Never despair.

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