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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Extinction (2015)

Extinction has a lot of ideas packed into what should have been a very small story. At times it wanted to be a zombie flick, then an “after the end” type story about an unconventional family, then it slipped into a monster flick, and then into a more traditional coming of age story. Unfortunately it tries hard to be all of these things at once and as such, fails to give each aspect its proper due. The family storylines never come to their logical head, and the eventual resolution of the plot rings hollow after so much setup for so little payoff.

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A lot of the character development didn’t make sense or wasn’t explored fully enough. For instance, one of the characters might be going mad from isolation and alcoholism, despite living in close proximity to other people, and suddenly seems to just…get over it one night. The young girl felt much older than what she was portrayed as, and her voice never quite found a solid tone to settle on. Her coming of age subplot didn’t have much of a conclusion. Sure, she gives up one of her dolls (symbol of childhood) in order to defeat a monster, but what happens after that? Extinction has a few lines about what it means to be human – mainly, not hiding in a house for your whole life – but doesn’t give its characters a clear direction to go in. The increasingly fractured family dynamics makes you root for them, but once those threads are resolved, there isn’t much to keep the audience invested.

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The monsters look decent, despite some moments of truly conspicuous CGI, but Extinction never explained how the shift from traditional zombies to the final product happened. The genre rules established in the film’s opening scenes suddenly don’t apply later on. While this makes for some interesting tension as the audience watches the characters scramble to adapt to the change, it comes a bit too late to be effective.

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I got the feeling that with its many ideas and mostly internal character development, Extinction would have been better served in novel format than a feature film. This one has too many ideas crammed into its two hours, and doesn’t manage to bring any of its questions to satisfactory answers. There are good moments, but the project as a whole is disjointed and confusing.

Tooth and Nail (2007)

The world ran out of gasoline. As a result, the world ended. What follows in Tooth and Nail is essentially a debate about the meaning of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Does Survival of the Fittest describe a world where the apex predators feed on everyone else, or a world where the smartest and most adaptable animals thrive? Tooth and Nail has small ambitions. It doesn’t bother much with the logic of its world – lots of communities function without gasoline? – but provides the audience with a situation, and then forces its characters to adapt when their circumstances change through a series of violent acts. In a dog-eating-dog world, will it be the gatherers or the hunters who thrive?

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Tooth and Nail has two groups of survivors acting out this debate. There are the rovers, a group of cannibals who corner other groups of survivors and then procedure to systematically pick them off one by one. They get away with this by using their superior numbers, and the fact that all of them are physically imposing and (hah) well fed. The other group, refereed to as the “foragers” by the IMDB page but never said by anyone in the film, is left scrambling as a series of their plans for survival all fall through.

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Tooth and Nail lags in the first third, taking too long to establish the true conflict and get to the interesting character development. I almost turned it off, but managed to sit through to the middle, where things got interesting. Again, Tooth and Nail doesn’t do all that much, but it has a clear idea of what it wants to talk about and once it gets there, it makes a very convincing argument.

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In this movie, survival of the fittest means survival of the adaptable. Not survival of the best predator. It’s a simple idea, but beautifully executed. It would have been even better if it hadn’t taken the film two acts to get to the point.

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Tooth and Nail is clearly shot on a small budget and doesn’t always utilize its scenery as well as it could, but – again – once it gets going, the film does have things to say about people who clearly look dangerous, and the fact that the real villain looks like the stereotypical final girl you’d find in a slasher.

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As for the Rovers, not much can be said of their performances. Tooth and Nail indicates that they have a sort of pack mentality going on, which doesn’t allow for much individualism. This is one of the few films where the lack of individuality actually worked in favor of the villains. It’s scarier because they work as a team, and there is absolutely no hint of friction or conflict in the group; unlike the Foragers, who are constantly bickering, the Rovers are a well-oiled machine – they are very good at what they do, and know exactly how to go about it. There are two notable exceptions, however. Vinnie Jones obviously had a blast playing Mongrel, though Tooth and Nail sadly didn’t give him much to do. Rachel Miner had a similarly interesting performance as Neon, the designated pack leader of the Rovers, picked not because of her brawn (she’s tiny), but because of her ruthless intelligence. I do wish the film had exposed her as a villain earlier, since she’s a joy to watch on screen once she reveals her true colors. Sadly, Tooth and Nail just doesn’t give her all that much to do. I would definitely watch a film with Mongrel and Neon wrecking havoc – the actors obviously had a fun time playing the roles, and were well-cast.

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I enjoyed Tooth and Nail a lot more than I expected to. It takes a long time to get to the point and uses too much voice-over, but if you can forgive those sins, then you might enjoy the surprisingly nuanced debate on Darwinism and human nature. Go see it.