Fear The Walking Dead: storytelling, moral relavivity, and the millennial voice

I’m going to try something a little different today. This isn’t a review in the strictest sense but rather a collection of thoughts and impressions I’ve had while watching the second season of Fear the Walking Dead.

First off, the second season is off to a strong start. The move to a boat gives the show a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse that it desperately needed, and a whole new set of conditions and rules for both the characters and the audience to learn. Fear has finally found that spacial and tonal shift to set it apart from its sister show – a struggle that unfortunately bogged the first season down. That, and underwater zombies are a whole new brand of terrifying. Kudos, as always, to the special effects department. The dialog has been subdued but the acting excellent, with special mention going to Alycia Debnam Carey and Lorenzo James Henrie. It’s been interesting to watch the characters coming into their own as the apocalypse rages on, and here we come to my observations.

While I’m disappointed that some of my earlier focal points have fallen by the wayside – Fear is no longer interested in exploring the importance of digital record keeping and interpretation (remember the cell phone scene in the pilot?) – the show has picked up on a few themes that ought to be watched. First, the importance of memory and record keeping hasn’t been banished entirely – there’s an entire subplot about whether or not a voice over the radio is telling the truth, and whether or not a salvaged logbook can be trusted – but has shifted to the non-digital. Disappointing to me, but worth paying attention to. Especially since in both of these cases, it’s been the teenagers of the group who have insisted upon seeking out and interpreting the narratives – both the logbook and the voice on the other end of the radio. At the moment, my two favorite characters are step-siblings Alicia and Chris, since both of them seem to understand – at least in a vague sense – the importance of narrative memory. In the first season, both of them were very interested in recording what was happening to them – Alicia with her home-applied tattoo and Chris with his video camera. For a short time he even kept a video diary, though Fear has apparently decided this plot line has been sufficiently resolved.

Another character I’m interested in is Elizabeth Rodriguez‘s Liza. She too has been very concerned with the power of narrative – the shattering of the story she told herself about her parents, and in particular her father, is central to her character development – and I’m very interested to see where Fear intends to take her story. That being said, her character has been out of focus in the past few episodes and hasn’t been given much to do. I’m hoping this will change as the episode progresses and we will be able to see how Liza goes about reforming her narratives about the changing world. We’ve already seen that the stories Liza tells herself – whether true or not – have been essential in forming her worldview. So how will she move forward now that the world – and perhaps more importantly, her perceptions of her only surviving family – have changed so drastically.

And thus we come to my second focus point: generational views of morality. With very little exception, it has been the younger people of the group – Alicia, Chris, Liza, and Nick – who have advocated helping others instead of looking out solely for their own interests. It was Chris who jumped into burning water to try and rescue survivors from a shipwreck and who later tried to comfort a dying man on the beach, it was Liza who needed so desperately to hear another voice on the other end of the radio, Nick who played with the children of a troubled survivor, and the whole group of them that advocated taking on the passengers of a sinking boat. All of them, to a fault, have attempted to demonstrate compassion and kindness to complete strangers – attempts that their parents ultimately discourage and dismiss. And all of them are millennials.

I think this is important, especially concerning the current discourse in the media. If you believe the stereotypes, millennials are lazy and entitled, caring only for themselves and living almost completely internally – glued to their phones and unconcerned with the increasingly fraught going-ons of the outside world. Certainly there’s a great deal that can be said about this, but I’ll keep it simple here. For this post, it’s important only that the stereotypes of self-absorbed millennials exist and are widely accepted, and that the teenagers of Fear are so determined to bulldoze through those stereotypes. Even more, these teenagers also embody other characteristics that are generally coded as “selfish” – the drug addict, the teenage girl, the frustrated step-son. But in Fear, it’s these teenagers who are kind – who look out for strangers instead of just themselves, even when it could potentially hurt them. These are the characters who attempt to save strangers, even at risk to their own lives. And here it’s the teenagers – the millennials – who are concerned with the importance of narrative and storytelling. And I think the two are connected.

See, our ideas about morality are intrinsically connected to how we construct our narratives of memory and self. Human beings use stories to figure out what we believe is right and wrong, and how we work through the tricky things caught in the middle. And stories are how we ultimately make sense of our memories – which then is cataloged and sorted according to our own internal moral compass.

In Fear, it’s the teenagers – the millennials – who are constructing these stories. Who are attempting to be kind instead of just survive. It’s these characters who are the voice of moral reason on the show. And in a society that seems keen to distrust the voices of this generation, I think that matters. Fear has stumbled in places and is still in the process of finding its footing, but I think this show has something. I’ll be tuned in. I suggest you do the same.

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12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

The Fog (1980)

One of John Carpenter’s lesser-known works, The Fog is nonetheless an excellent example of his visual and cinematic skill. Like with many of Carpenter’s works, The Fog struggles a bit with its script and pacing, but more than makes up for it with the visual motifs and special effects that, while they may not have aged particularly well, were excellent for their time and remain striking on screen. Like its opening scene, The Fog is a late night ghost story, a tale of betrayal and revenge and lingering debts that asks – though doesn’t quite answer – exactly how culpable are people for the misdeeds of their ancestors? Should six innocent people die in penance for the horrific crime their ancestors committed a hundred years ago? Especially if it was a crime motivated by greed and prejudice, from which they all ultimately profited? An interesting question, but one that neither The Fog nor its unfortunate remake (which shall not be spoken of) really answers.

Though not a radical game-changer like some of Carpenter’s other works, The Fog is a solid piece of filmmaking and should be celebrated. Go watch it. See where the genre learned its tricks.

Uncaged (2016)

Uncaged is what happens when you try to mix old school werewolves with modern technology and mix it with an overdose of misguided machismo. It has moments of humor and some decent cinematography on a shoestring budget, but its many faults eventually weigh it down. It’s not that the werewolf story is incapable of modernization – I can give you at least ten examples where it works just fine – but rather that the default themes have become sorely outdated and – much like the filmmaking technology itself – must be revised in order to fit with a changing society.

Let’s start with the base assumption. Traditionally, the werewolf transformation has been a metaphor for the primal, male sex drive that has been constrained by polite society and will eventually break free and run rampant. “Unleashing the beast”, and what not. Later films have changed the metaphor slightly – notably as a metaphor for puberty and female desire in the Ginger Snaps series – but the historical roots remain strong. The “beast” is primal, masculine sexual desire. It can only be contained by noble self-sacrifice – often promoted by a desire to protect a virtuous woman (a Madonna figure) – or by the love of a virtuous woman (again, the Madonna). The beast feeds on nameless strangers and loose women (the Whore), who are usually non-white, and is either aided or encouraged by other male characters. The beast can only come out at night and is weakened by silver. All your standard werewolf lore.

Uncaged makes the connection between sex and werewolves painfully clear – nearly every conversation the characters have revolves around men perusing sex with women. However, the desire is strictly heterosexual and male-focused. Of the few women who appear in the film, none have their own character arcs or agency. Their roles and stories are dependent entirely on the men in their lives. The three female characters each fall into stereotypical roles: the Mother (the mother of one character), the Madonna (Rose, a black woman in an abusive relationship who must be rescued by a white man – she is never sexualized), and the Whore (Crystal, the promiscuous, unintentionally sympathetic hookup of another character). Only one of them – Crystal, the Whore – has any desire or storyline unconnected to men and hers – the pursuit of the farm’s elusive, nonexistent cat – ends up being the thing that gets her horribly murdered. Rose’s entire storyline concerns the varied men in her life who are concerned with her purity – there’s an entire subplot, never fully resolved, about whether or not she was cheating on her husband with one of the werewolf victims. The film ends with Rose getting attacked and infected with the werewolf virus, which could be seen as a metaphor for sexual assault. Notably, it’s the only attack in the film that leaves a survivor – but her life is horribly changed against her will, by men – and she’s stuck at the mercy of a gun-toting man who very well might kill her for her perceived “impurity”.

The entire thing is so ham-fisted that it must have been on purpose, though for the life of me I really can’t imagine why. None of the male characters fit into these archetypes. No one gives a damn about their sexual purity – rather the opposite – and the fact that this sexual drive is apparently leading them to murder people is just…there. Without comment.

So. There’s that.

Aside from its curious views on women, Uncaged has some clunky dialog and unsympathetic character, who commit several murders without showing any particular concerned for the victims – the majority of which are women and black men.

There’s a pattern here. It’s a problem.

The movie has some interesting ideas mixed in along all the racial and gender issues, though there are a few too many plot holes for them to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even without all the other issues, Uncaged suffers from a bounty of competition in the werewolf subgenre and doesn’t come up with anything creative enough to hold its head above the crowd. Skip this one. It made me feel gross.

 

 

 

The Other Side of the Door (2016)

So, this movie wasn’t as horribly racist as it could have been. It feels a bit ridiculous that this is a thing that’s said, either as a compliment or a statement of fact, but here we are. Despite having its white, American protagonist dealing with Indian superstition and ghost stories, The Other Side of the Door avoids the deeper pratfalls that some of its fellows (I’m looking at you, The Forest) this year have fallen into concerning racial stereotypes and producing the nonwhite “other” as the strange, malevolent force that must be battled and that eventually the white people are infected by and succumb to. At its heart, The Other Side of the Door wants to be a meditation on the devouring power of grief and the lengths people will go to in order to try and come to terms with said grief – or avoid it entirely, to the point of extreme, uneasy measures.

An attempt is made, to be sure, but the film falters in too many places for the story to ever find its footing. The pacing is confusing, especially in the beginning, and it feels like several establishing scenes were cut from the narrative that should have been kept in. Aside from the lead, none of the other characters have much of an arch or enough screen presence to make me remember their names. They exist to further the narrative and not much else. The notable exception is a wonderful, subdued performance by Suchitra Pillai, who was criminally underutilized. In all honesty, Mrs. Pillai was the best thing about this movie – despite having about ten minutes of screen time. Her character arc was subtle and tragic, and had more emotional resonance than any of the conflict that drives the main characters that the audience is supposed to care about.

The cinematography has some moments of brilliance, but The Other Side of the Door is a confused, disjointed mess. It desperately wants to say something about the pull of grief in the wake of tragedy and sets up the platform to do so, but falters once it actually gets to that point. A tragedy occurs. The characters are sad. And…that’s about it. That’s the narrative. Setting the story in India could have made for some interesting dialog about the cultural conventions of grief and mourning, but those conversations just never happen. To its credit – I really can’t believe I’m saying this – the film isn’t as racist as it could have been. Though the supernatural forces are clearly racially Other, the malevolence is related more to grief in general than any culturally specific evil. Or at least that’s the attempt. Still, there is a great deal of cultural appropriation and the prioritization of white grief and white stories, over the narratives of characters like Piki, who’s own loss is brushed aside once its narrative purpose has been served.

This story has been done before. It’s been done much better. I can provide examples. Go watch something else.