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.