The Happening (2008) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violent and disturbing images
Running time: 91 min.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin
Cameo: M. Night Shyamalan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Review published June 15, 2008
If I had thought, even for one second, that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water, The Village) were making a spoof of end-of-the-world sci-fi thrillers from the 1950s, I might give The Happening much more credit than I'll be giving here. Even further, if it had also occurred to me that Shyamalan could be satirizing his own style of filmmaking, taking what was once harrowing and making it amusing, I'd probably be heralding him as the genius he must think he is. Though I entertained these notions after watching The Happening, as they serve as the only plausible explanations as to how such a good director and storyteller could make such an abysmally bad film, then I remembered that his track record in terms of telling stories to captivate audiences has been on a steady decline with each successive film after The Sixth Sense.
Frankly, I'm surprised, as I thought his recent failures would surely mean he would try for a comeback film. I'm beyond surprise -- I'm downright shocked -- that the bottom could completely drop out in terms of his once surefire ability to hold us in rapt attention, and despite very bizarre circumstances, keep us entranced from start to finish with techniques that had critics and fans alike proclaiming him the Hitchcock for the modern generation. Hitchcock made a rare dud now and then, but none of them come close to the sheer ineptitude of The Happening, a film that one could claim is a clumsy first cousin of Hitch's own nature-vs.-man paranoia flick. The Birds.
Our film starts out in downtown New York City, Central Park, where all of the normally busting human activity suddenly comes to a stop, only to start up seconds later with everyone in the vicinity committing suicide in the most immediately convenient ways possible. Rampant rumors of a terrorist attack swarm the media, as news sources and government desperately try to push an immediate explanation for something that can't be explained. Residents in nearby Philadelphia, and indeed the entire world, are aghast at what they see on their televisions, especially after signs that the events appear to be recurring in their neck of the woods.
Our protagonists for the film are science teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg, We Own the Night), his wife Alma (Deschanel, Surf's Up), Elliot's friend Julian (Leguizamo, Ice Age: The Meltdown), and Julian's young daughter, Jess (Sanchez, Crash). Given the progressions from big cities to progressively smaller ones, they decide that their best course of action is to take to the countryside, as there appears to be strength in smaller numbers. Trouble is, whatever is happening has something to do with the fauna of the region, and the more they get away from the city, the more they are surrounded by what they feel are the sources for humanity's downfall.
Before starting to write this review, I decided to read the pro-Shyamalan arguments in the attempt to get the flip side opinion as to what I consider to be one of the worst films of 2008, and perhaps the worst film from an auteur of Shyamalan's reputation in some time. Most of the arguments by this group are of the "people are obviously too stupid to understand Shyamalan's genius" variety. I've never understood the argument that it's the audience's fault when a filmmaker fails to make a connection with them in terms of his story. Given that audiences readily ate up equally nonsensical tales in the past (audiences still love The Birds despite no plausible explanation for their attacks), I would argue that it's not that audiences are too stupid, it's that Shyamalan has become far less assured in his ability to set mood, tempo, and atmosphere -- the bread and butter of his best works. Without the ability to get audiences on board from the outset, his whole story falls apart, and nothing he can do can set it right again.
That said, I don't think The Happening is a stupid movie. There is obviously something behind it that resonates with Shyamalan that he's trying to convey. There is an ecological/environmental message somewhere in there regarding the tenuous nature of nature, and how just the slightest imbalance, whether in our climate or our ability to maintain symbiotic order, can radically affect our physical and psychological wellbeing. Although it's never really explained, Shyamalan lays clues out as to what's going on. One girl before her death talks about how it's "the calculus" that is causing her need for her own destruction. An anecdote by Julian, the mathematician, discusses the doubling of pennies every day for thirty days, and how there would be over "10 million dollars" by the end of it. This anecdote is ostensibly the opposite of what's going on, as groups of millions die first, then lesser and lesser communities.
Shyamalan is a smart and talented man, but the appeal of his films have been just as exponential in their downward trend. Movies that once enthralled millions soon became more and more fragmented and disjointed to the point where lesser amounts of people in any large group will come away entertained or inspired by them. The Happening's miss rate is his biggest yet, getting precipitously close to shattering the hardcore fan base expecting him to deliver on his early promise, and only a smattering of apologists remain. At this rate, his next movie or two will only appeal to one person, and that person is certain to be M. Night himself.
The Happening suffers not just from a storytelling standpoint, it is also not balanced in its acting, scoring, or editing. Wahlberg labors to be credible as a man of science, and a great deal of his dialogue comes from his utterly useless bantering with his wife Alma (coincidence that Alma is also the name of Hitchcock's wife?). I'm guessing that Shyamalan is trying to afford some comic relief to his work, but it seems completely out of place as delivered. Unlike The Birds, which has no external score, James Newton Howard's (The Great Debaters, Charlie Wilson's War) score coats every scene to the point where it's rare to have a moment of silence. It sure sounds like something scary is going on from the music cues, but as we sit in the audience waiting for that scary something to occur, we grow less and less certain on the ability to deliver, especially as we snicker more and more at what's happening on the screen. Only the late appearance of Betty Buckley (Frantic, Carrie), playing a paranoid old woman so off-kilter she gives Mrs. Bates a run for her money, manages to actually creep us out, though eventually even that aspect causes some unintentional laughs.
I can only recommend The Happening to three groups of people, though two of them aren't likely to be the audiences Shyamalan desires to cater to. Primarily, the smallest of the three groups are the aforementioned Shyamalan aficionados, who are scouring each frame of his films as the products of a prodigious mind. These people will probably spend months conjecturing in movie forums about what a genius Night is for such things as having every prominent supporting character's name start with a letter "J" (Julian, Jess, Josh, Jared, Joey, Jake, and Mrs. Jones).
The second group will be those who have some psychological need to champion minority opinions, always feeling like they are somehow intellectually superior to the "idiots" that make up the general populace for being too dimwitted to understand that which they know to be of great quality. One suspects that if the majority of the public were to eat up The Happening to the shattering of box office records, this same group would be railing against it with equal fervor, obviously indicative of how dumb people are for liking such trashy nonsense.
Finally, the largest group that this will appeal to are the crowd that enjoys the cheesiness of bad sci-fi, especially ones with horrendous apocalyptic plotlines, corny dialogue (what's with the plant-lover's diatribe about people who've written off the worth of hot dogs?) and poor acting. Shyamalan digs a hole for himself early, and rather than try to climb out, he continues to dig even further down thinking he'll come upon an exit soon enough.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines a "happening" as "something (as an event) that is particularly interesting, entertaining, or important". Not much happening here, folks, unless you enjoy seeing a formidable filmmaker follow his characters footsteps by committing career suicide for reasons beyond any ability for us to comprehend.
©2008 Vince Leo