Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

Say what you want about M. Night Shyamalan, the man definitely has a style and a vision and, as writer, director and producer of The Happening, the means to convey both. It wasn't surprising that his latest release has received a critical thrashing. He's been the popular whipping boy for movie critics since his breakout hit The Sixth Sense. Almost universally reviled with increasing disdain for not following up the plot twisty thriller with more of the same, Shyamalan pretty much proves one of the theses of his movie Unbreakable--we create heroes in order to destroy them.

I will agree with many people who admired the clever storytelling of The Sixth Sense. It's even better upon re-watching to see how carefully the shocking reveal is set-up. Unbreakable was a moody and dark piece that was less flashy and more thoughtful than its infamous predecessor. Signs almost perfectly captured the sense of dread and isolation in this War of the Worldish tale. Yeah, the ending was a bit lame--but so evocative and on point about our fear and need for information in the post 9/11 atmosphere.

The Village fell flat for me. Too many logical and logistical flaws for me. Maybe Shyamalan doesn't want to always be known as the "Prince of the Plot Twist" but why then devote an entirely tortured set-up just for a letdown of a payoff? Really--if I'm gonna isolate myself and my progeny from society to ensure safety, why is it necessary to dress in 17th century clothing and speak in "thee" and "thou"? And would it have been really so evil to have a stash of medical supplies on hand just in case? And if the village was started by like five or seven people in the 70s or 80s, where did the hundred or so other people come from?

Surprisingly, I didn't dislike Lady in the Water as much as the general population. I viewed it as an ode to storytelling and the storyteller with a fairytale quality that was carried off well thanks to the talented Paul Giamatti who plays a man who has lost all faith but learns to believe again through his chance meeting with a magical creature. If the audience could have managed to suspend their disbelief as Giamatti's Cleveland Heep regains his faith, perhaps they would have enjoyed the ride as well. If nothing else, the "creatures" by designer Crash McCreery were worth the price of a matinee ticket. The biggest downside for me was M. Night casting himself in the pivotal role of Vick Ran. Ugh! The man's a talented director but an AWFUL actor. He should limit his appearances to the blink and you'll miss it Hitchcockian cameos.

As far as The Happening goes--it's nowhere near as awful as the critics are making it out to be. It's not The Sixth Sense, but there are some terrifically creepy moments in this horror/eco-thriller. Shyamalan set out to make a B-movie and by doing so sacrificed some character development and emotional resonance with the brevity of film. Remember the opening of The Sixth Sense? We got Anna (Oliva Cross) creeped out by the cold wine cellar, the buzzed celebration of Malcolm (Bruce Willis) and Anna following his award ceremony, their coy and cute striptease in the bedroom only to be interrupted by the ghastly intrusion of Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg) naked in the bathroom? How amazingly elegant was that? We got exposition - Malcolm, a successful and dedicated child psychologist married to Anna; we got character development - the loving relationship between Malcolm and Anna, the deep sense of responsibility of Malcolm to his patients; we got atmosphere - the chill and creepiness of the wine cellar; we got action and drama - Vincent shooting Malcolm and turning the gun on himself; all in the first five minutes or so! Unfortunately there's nothing as elegant in The Happening--it really could have used a more eloquent set up before the horror story started.

In addition, there's a scene at the end that's reminiscent of the Hess Family huddled in the basement in Signs, yet where that scene had tension, emotional drama and depth, the scene in The Happening is fairly flat with little build-up of tension and drama. It's too bad that Shyamalan hasn't learned from his past good work to bring it forward into this piece. Had he included an elegant opening set-up as in The Sixth Sense and an emotionally charged ending scene like that in Signs, we might have seen a much better movie. This one felt like it needed a couple more drafts to really polish it up.

While Shyamalan's got a great sense of story and visuals, his dialogue tends to be clunky. (Following the screening this morning, I overheard two women talking in the bathroom and both agreed that the dialogue was stilted. Note to Night: If you need someone to polish up your dialogue, I'm available!) In one scene, Zooey Deschanel (LOVE her, but thought she was miscast here...) declares that she doesn't like talking about her feelings in public. Uh, but you just DID!!! There is, however, a nice moment of subtext with John Leguizamo's Julian, fraught with fear and anger, tells Deschanel's Alma, "Don't you dare take her hand unless you mean it!" But overall it's too stuffy, on the nose and forgettable.

Shyamalan does know when and where to insert a bit of comic relief ala Signs when Mel Gibson's character came home to find his two children and their uncle wearing tin foil hats on their heads to prevent the aliens from reading their minds. In The Happening he has Mark Wahlberg talking to a potted plant--which turns out to be plastic. Yes, it's the plants who are the bad guys as the film depicts an event where neurotoxins are released into the atmosphere causing the shutdown of the human survival instinct resulting in mass suicides. And while Paul Simon sang of Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover, there must be about the same number of ways to meet one's maker--each more gruesomely graphic than the next (I must admit--I couldn't begin to tell you all the ways Shyamalan came up with since I was looking at my hands during those scenes...).

It's an interesting premise, but it made me wonder--would the elimination of the survival instinct be likely to cause active, violent suicidal actions (guns and lawnmowers) or a more passive I don't care if I die reactions (falling off buildings and hangings)? In my opinion, the more passive suicides were far more creepy and chilling to behold (and less stomach turning as well...). The creepiest part of the movie, however, was Betty Buckley (Abby Bradford? Who KNEW?!!!) as a really cranky old lady. Seriously scary. Freaking AWESOME! The woman deserves a horror franchise (Grandma of Chucky?) of her own. Another good thing about the movie is Shyamalan, although credited with the role of "Joey," does not seem to appear (or if he does I did actually blink and miss him...) in it.

With an epilogue that both celebrates the tenacity of life as well as portends ecological doom, M. Night gives us both a happy (relatively speaking) ending and a strong warning as well. I wish a bit more of the havoc we as a planet are wreaking upon ourselves had been expressed. It's not one of the best movies I've seen (The Sixth Sense ranking up there among them...), but it's definitely not the worst either. I'd give it two and a half stars out of five--it falls short of being a solid, well-crafted piece. It falls well short of being as brilliant as The Sixth Sense. But with a projected opening weekend take of over $30 million, it seems quite a few people disregarded the negative reviews as well. Perhaps Shyamalan's next horror flick will be about movie critics choking to death as they're forced to eat their own words...


  1. I would have to disagree with "nowhere near as bad". I think the movie failed on so many counts that Mr.Night's next movie will have to be advertised as "from the creator of Sixth Sense".

  2. You're entitled to your opinion of course (and it's the same as most reviewers). The Happening would have/could have been much better with better dialogue, a better set up that allowed us to get to know and care about the characters and pacing that worked to build intensity in the story as it followed the arc and journey of the characters (M. Night could REALLY use a co-writer to smooth out the bumps!), but I still think the critics were a lot harsher than necessary (it may not be his best work, but it's certainly far from the WORST movie I've ever seen--I reserve that for the likes of Napoleon Dynamite and Idiocracy!)

    And I'm quite sure that ALL M. Night's movies (except for his first two) are marketed and will continue to be marketed as "from the creator of The Sixth Sense."