In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for White Noise, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Jack Gladney – Adam Driver
- Babette Gladney – Greta Gerwig
- Denise Gladney – Raffey Cassidy
- Heinrich Gladney – Sam Nivola
- Steffie Gladney – May Novila
- Wilder Gladney – Henry Moore/Dean Moore
- Murray Siskind – Don Cheadle
- Mr. Gray – Lars Eidinger
- Winnie Richards – Jodie Turner-Smith
- Elliot Lasher – André Benjamin
The themes and meaning of White Noise
Thanatophobia aka fear of death
The novel version of White Noise has the space to develop a number of themes, but the film focuses on one primary topic: death. Both Jack and Babette share an intense fear of death. We see how Jack has dreams that imply the presence of death. And Babette ends up joining the Dylar test to quell her own terror.
We can look at the structure for further elaboration. The first act introduces us to Jack’s day to day life. His family. His career as a professor of Hitler studies. His grocery shopping experience. Everything is familiarly Americana. Death is nothing more than an idea far away on the horizon. Even then, it plagues Jack and Babette like a kind of white noise that’s there in the background.
Then The Airborne Toxic Event happens. Death is now something very immediate, if still hard to grasp. The danger is real but not tangible. Jack simply gets out of the car for a couple minutes to pump gas. That’s enough to stricken him with a terminal illness. But we see how this fear of death hits an entire population. The whole town has to come face to face with the reality that they may die if they don’t do something. And even if they take action—it can still go wrong. The storm ends up as this almost surreal embodiment of dying. Hovering around us. Affecting the world around us.
And then we get into the aftermath. What does Jack do now that he’s sick? Before, death was just a concept. Then it was a temporary, public event. Now, it’s real and personal. How does that affect him? Having that knowledge, what does he do with his time? Initially, he seeks to find a way out of it. The Dylar. Maybe that will help? But he decides to forgo the use of Dylar in order to punish its creator, Mr. Gray, for sleeping with Babette. Through the showdown with Mr. Gray, Jack confronts death. And comes out the otherside with a better appreciation for life. Instead of fearing what’s to come, he decides to appreciate all that’s left.
Commercialism and consumerism via the A&P supermarket
This theme isn’t as well-developed in the show as it is in the movie. But it’s pointed to go from the chaos and mortality of the airborne toxic event to suddenly being back in the grocery store. Murray walks with Jack and says, “It’s comforting to know the supermarket hasn’t changed since the toxic event. In fact, the supermarket has only gotten better.” Not just pointed. It’s absurd, really. But it shows the way people seek comfort and reinforcement from the act of consuming. It’s a distraction. It’s another form of white noise, one that keeps us distracted from our fears. Whether that’s fear of death or some other existential worry. We self-soothe via television, movies, books, video games, by going to malls, to shopping centers, to grocery stores. Consuming becomes a way to define our existence. I saw this. I bought this. I have this. I exist.
What are your thoughts?
Are there more themes you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for White Noise? Leave your comments below and we’ll consider updating the guide.