Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

From the moment Bruce Willis realized that he was dead in The Sixth Sense, most of M. Night Shyamalan's films have featured a rejection of an understandable, rational universe for a mysterious, magical one. In fact, Shyamalan's films seem anchored to this notion that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies. Thus far, he has not done much more with this notion but craft increasingly desperate cinematic pleas that we all share this viewpoint with him. His last film was Lady in the Water, and its ludicrous, unbearable fairy-tale plot demanded an entire apartment community believe in pixies or whatever so that a writer could write a book that would singlehandedly make the world a better place (we'll generously ignore the fact that this writer was played by M. Night himself to avoid labored armchair psychoanalysis). While this theme in Shyamalan's films has only worked for me once before (with Mel Gibson's spiritual re-awakening in Signs), these filmed pleas (even the wretched Lady in the Water) have been at the very least compelling, if not ultimately convincing. And so arrives, The Happening, a film where Shyamalan (inadvertantly, I'd wager) points in the opposite direction; the plot awkwardly takes the magical and renders it rational. Poorly.

About halfway through this terrible movie, I gave up. I stayed to watch the rest of the film, if only to witness the disaster, but struggled to keep from shouting obscenities while the movie's idiocy drove me bats. At this point in the film, the main characters, supposedly intelligent adults, tried to outrun a gust of wind. This cannot be repeated enough. In The Happening, a group of people attempt to outrun the wind. And, from all cues, the movie thinks that such a thing might be possible and that, indeed, an audience would be willing to root for its heroes to defy reality in such a way. It was here I realized that I could no longer keep a list of the film's shortcomings in my head. The Happening bested me. I would love to type out a laundry list of this film's failures, pointing out what's wrong scene by scene and cackle with schadenfreude the whole while. Alas, the movie short-circuited my brain with so much mind-boggling awfulness, that I can only shake my head in awe. So, from here, let's all just take it for granted that the plotting, dialogue, acting, and pacing are pretty atrocious for a mainstream release like The Happening, and everyone involved is or will be smarting from a collective spanking delivered by hundreds of thousands of millions of people once they see this movie.

The Happening opens with a bunch of people in Northeastern America mysteriously killing themselves en masse. Though it is marked by the awkward staging and weird, bad acting that permeate the entire film, this is the only moment that actually connects. Images of a group of construction workers plummeting from the top of a construction site or a group of people in Central Park suddenly frozen in place deliver a momentary shudder. However, once the film cuts to Mark Wahlberg as a New York City science teacher, it's game over, man. Here, it becomes clear that the film is going to have something to do with science, but, as written, Shyamalan's conception of science is as confused as a young child's notions of what sex is all about. Wahlberg, in class, asks his disinterested students for theories on why bees are disappearing and when one of them ventures, "It's a natural phenomenon. We'll never understand it," this shaper of young minds replies, "That's right." He actually then goes on to state the creationist code phrase that scientific explanations for natural phenomenon are "just theories," and babbles about forces beyond our understanding. It's not that any of this is objectively false or that I necessarily disagree with it on a philosophical level or that I care what these fictional kids are taught in their fictional science classes. It's that it indicates that the writer-director of the film has no clue what the hell he is talking about. Scientific theories are more than "just theories," and anyone with a modicum of knowledge about science, much less an instructor, will bristle at such a blithe dismissal of the collected, ever-growing understanding of the natural world that science represents. Unless, of course, the Shaymalan twist (unseen in the film) is that Wahlberg is an Intelligent Design proponent, a fact that would make more sense of the character's idiocy and emotional immaturity.

What gets me the most, though, is the amazing, scary paternalistic world the characters inhabit. With strange frequency, Shyamalan points the camera at Wahlberg or John Leguizamo as the deadly happenings continue to befall the group of survivors that they've fallen in with. The two men grunt and sway under the pressure as every person in the group looks to them for leadership or guidance, despite the fact that they've done nothing notable to deserve such reverence. One scene, in particular, is crazily bad about this. As several people start dying, Wahlberg is struggling in his foolish quest to (hilariously) use the scientific method to determine the best course of action. The other people in his group who wish to help the affected, scream, "Tell us what to do!" or something like that and also, "People are dying!" at Wahlberg as he remains frozen in indecision. One wonders why these people don't just, you know, do something themselves if they're so invested? There's an assumption behind this, that large problems must be placed onto the shoulders of heroic martyrs. This sort-of thinking made some sense with Mel Gibson's ex-priest in Signs, not least because he was the oldest person around with children to care for, but here it's just nonsensical to watch men and women, presumably no less special than Wahlberg, look to him as if he is some sort of wizard.

All this has wasted too many words on the film. The crux of The Happening is that the plants of the world are suffering due to humanity's rape of the environment, and they've rapidly evolved the ability to make people kill themselves in order to repel this encroaching threat. Fine. While it's best, perhaps, if fantasists like Shyamalan and Roland Emmerich abstain from trying to teach ecological lessons, I'm not opposed to the concept in theory. However, you can call me misanthropic, but I need a reason to think that saving humanity, or at least the characters I'm watching, is a good idea. Judging solely from the whiny, idiotic people that populate this film, I'm content to set down the weed whacker and let the plants take over. At least they don't make movies like this one.


Anonymous said...

funny, great review. want more dirt.
should i watch it as a car accident kind of experience?

zeroediting said...

i don't think we will ever full understand what forces made this movie possible and why

David Wester said...

As far as dirt goes, I think when it comes out on DVD, I'm going to record a home-made commentary track dissecting the problems as the film plays. There is so much to say it boggles the mind and would make my fingers far too sore from typing it all down.

The audience I saw it with never quite turned on the movie... though the buzz as we were walking out was pretty negative.

As far as a car-wreck watching goes... eh. It never quite reaches inspired lunacy, the way some wrecks do. It's just a plodding, melancholy sort-of thing and since you can't get into it, it just stretches on interminably. It really is quite fascinating to watch a movie get it so wrong, but not so much that you need to rush out and see it. There are better ways to spend your time.

David Wester said...

Zeroediting: Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

i just recently saw 6th sense again and i don't think it holds up --it's so corny. Toni Collette is the only good thing about it. when willis finds out he's dead at the end he just has these dumb flashbacks and its over?

what was he doing when he didn't think he was dead? where did he eat, sleep, crap?

if any one of these scenes went past the time it took to see them on screen he would have known right of the bat he was being ignored?/dead

i think the whole back lash on the happening made people want to see it, to see if its as bad as people say...

David Wester said...

I have to admit, I never liked The Sixth Sense. To be fair, I saw it weeks after its release and heard people say "There's a twist" so often that I was able to figure the twist out from the trailer. Someone I knew at the time later said that the movie was about a man so self-absorbed, he didn't notice that nobody talked to him except a child.

I think an argument can be made that the "ghost" lives a different sort of existence, only aware of the "awake" moments. So it seems a little nit-picky to say Willis should have been able to figure it out too. My biggest problem with the movie is that it's just the same ol' "these ghosts need closure" without any new spin on this tired concept. And, yes, Toni Collette is the best part of the movie.

Anonymous said...

i blame the nascar people for Manoj's career. those are the people that go.

David Wester said...

You know, I have never felt a strong antipathy towards M. Night... I've thought he was a good craftsman and skilled at playing an audience in a sort-of Hitchcockian way. I liked Signs... it's almost a remake (and well-done) of The Birds with a shittier ending. I have always chafed at the "religious" nature of his films, though, as I think I expressed in this review. I have a basic philosophical disagreement with the stories he's telling. But I don't blame people for going, I guess.

DDOG said...

dude felt teh same way bout this movie. good job !!!!!!

zora_f. said...

*argh* now i won't be able to watch it. *whine*

seriously, i've been dreading the day that i wouldn't be able to defend shyamalan. i loved SIGNS, but i always thought UNBREAKABLE was his best - this whole comic world rule thing i thought was great (determination, fatalism, all the interpretative nonsense you can hang on it). i've seen it coming that he'd take on the messiah badge but i forced myself to ignore it. no, i don't think i will be able t see THE HAPPENING unbiased. ah well.

still, i saw THE LADY IN THE WATER as a practical execution of "interpretation" - everything is about translation, reading signs and acting upon supposed structure or rules immanent to the observed environment. i blithely ignored the messiah complex that inhabits the movie.

David Wester said...


A nice point about Lady in the Water and I think we're in some sort-of agreement about it... I've always felt that there was value in it, I guess, even though I still think it's dreck and hell to get through.

Unbreakable hasn't aged well in my mind, but I liked it well enough at the time.

One thing that cannot be said enough is that James Newton Howard writes some excellent scores for Shymalan. The Happening is equally awesome in this regard, so you should watch it for that reason alone.

movie community said...

It is ok kind of film. One of the problems with the film was the quality of the acting and the characters themselves.