Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Happening

“The Happening”

USA. 2008. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey, Jr., Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Alan Ruck, Victoria Clark, Alison Folland, Kristen Connolly and Cornell Womack.

Rating: ★★½

I have not had as mixed a reaction towards a film as I have had for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening for quite a long time. If the people in the movie are fighting against some kind of serious force of nature, so do the scenes of Hitchcockian suspense with moments that head straight into camp. The end results are not completely uninteresting and it is far from deserving the scorched earth reactions the film has already elicited.

The Shyamalan haters would think that this movie is now strike three for him after 2004’s The Village and 2006’s Lady in the Water. I certainly had disdain myself for the former’s nonsensical payoff but, after seeing Lady in the Water, I started to sense a kind of adamantly loopy determination from Shyamalan to just charge ahead no matter the scorn he would receive from people in his storytelling (and there is no denying that movie also had some gaping story lapses). That is certainly true with his latest film, The Happening as well and, though the film is finally a little too undisciplined and disorganized to be completely successful, one has got to admire his sheer narcissistic chutzpah as well as his ability to stage some very good scares.

The movie’s concept is certainly an unsettling one and the opening of the movie is quite a jolt. An unseen force is causing people to suddenly become disorientated, lose the ability to speak and then commit suicide in creatively gruesome ways that richly deserve the first R rating Shyamalan has garnered. The fact that it first happens in New York City causes people to think initially that it is a terrorist attack. As the invisible “plague” spreads through other cities in the Northeast, that possibility becomes less likely.

We are introduced to Philadelphia high school teacher, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), who is baffled and confused by how all of his school’s classes are being promptly dismissed and evacuated. Since the plague seems to be attacking cities, however, he, his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and fellow high school teacher, Julian (John Leguizamo) deem it a good idea to leave the city. But the train they get on suddenly stops as it has seemingly lost all communication with nearby train stations.

One would expect the usual mass shouting and hysteria at this point but it is a cliché this movie avoids as Elliot and Alma are entrusted with Julian’s daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) after Julian decides to risk his life to find his wife in the possibly already affected Princeton, NJ. On the other hand, there are a handful of moments that do seem to veer off suddenly into silly camp territory. Deschanel, in particular, acts a little too wide-eyed and childlike at certain points and Wahlberg, in his opening class lecture, goes overboard in his Socratic teaching method of his belief that there are inexplicable phenomena that scientists can only make theories about (albeit the actors eventually settle into their parts somewhat as Wahlberg becomes sort of a de-facto leader).

Much of this is probably more intentional by Shyamalan than people give credit for, however, since Shyamalan himself said that this is his attempt at making a “B-movie” of sorts. The fact that he does not go for the obvious doom and gloom, I think, shows that he acknowledges the scenario is truly absurd, especially considering the final explanation of the event. He does not quite find the solid balance in tone between the camp value and the much graver nature of the suicides but it is at least a change of pace from watching the actors just merely be somber all the time and the eventual plunge into hysteria is saved until the very end when Betty Buckley enters as a mad hermit survivalist.

In depicting the suicides themselves, Shyamalan shows his genuine gift for staging and directing horrific scenes for primal mood and effect. Just looking at the trailer, I thought the ground-level POV shot of various NYC construction workers jumping off a building was haunting and the scene in full is even scarier (in part due to its echoes of 9/11). He is even careful and methodical enough to show the goriest scene of a man purposely standing in the middle of a lion’s den through a cell phone camera. Another sequence of a gun being transferred as a suicidal weapon of choice is effectively and creepily reminiscent of the passing of an evil spirit in the vastly underrated 1998 Denzel Washington thriller, Fallen.

Of course, where the film would potentially get the worst flack is in the ultimate rationale for “the happening,” which, despite that it is really explained early on and not left to the end, I will try to discuss while tiptoeing around the details. Again, I don’t reject it in concept since, if one actually thinks about it, the ultimate force of nature presented in this story is no more plausible than Hitchcock’s birds suddenly attacking humans without warning. The weakness in his storytelling is not in the concept, which is daring and staged properly as a threat (particularly in a scene where sounds of various suicidal gunshots go off in the distance). It is really in how he has a farmer character conveniently just spout it off as simplistic exposition just to propel the plot forward. The story would have been more engaging if Shyamalan had Elliot somehow use his science teacher’s imagination to figure out the cause for himself. That would have also allowed a scene where Wahlberg talks to a certain inanimate object to be more fully intentionally funny than somewhat laughable and the ultimate resolution more mysteriously moving.

So the film overall is a bit of a mess but it is unfair for so many to compare every other Shyamalan movie again and again to his first smash hit, The Sixth Sense. He is certainly no longer trying to replicate that shocking big “twist” that audiences were so enthralled by in that film so we shouldn’t judge him as such either. The Happening may indicate that it is time for Shyamalan to streamline his story ideas better next time to match his innate filmmaking craft but, in the meantime, people should make amends for grossly overlooking the real movie where his rich story masterfully came alive, Unbreakable.

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