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Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening (2008)

M. Night Shyamalan wants to remind us that It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

I went to M. Night. Shyamalan’s The Happening with high hopes; after the abysmal, ridiculous Lady in The Water, I figured The Happening, a B-movie with an environmentalist message, would provide more than enough material for a gleefully snide critical dissection. Alas, The Happening is not bad enough to warrant such a treatment. It’s not, however, very good, either.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: In the Northeast United States, a chemical is released into the air that causes people to become disoriented and then suicidal. A science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zoe Deschanel), friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) all flee Philadelphia because they fear a terrorist attack. Unbeknownst to them, the danger, created by Mother Nature herself, follows them to their rustic hideout.

There are a few key things wrong with The Happening. Shyamalan clearly set out to create a modern day incarnation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. He picks an unlikely villain (nature), pits it against a small group of unsuspecting victims and then ends the conflict with no explanation. I have to say that I really like The Birds and I thought it provided a good scare. However, I’ve always found birds to be rather sinister looking, what with their prehistoric frames, sinewy claws, pointed beaks and beady eyes. They just look nefarious to me. The toxins released by plants in The Happening, however, did not scare me. With his lurching, jibbering suicide victims Mr. Shyamalan evokes both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead yet he never achieves the intensity of either because he is self-consciously attempting to serve up a “B-movie.” We see a man lie down in front of a lawn mower and get his face chopped up; we see a man feed himself to a lion at the zoo; we even see a woman stab herself in the neck with a chopstick; all of these stage blood-soaked deaths come off as cartoonish and laughable. There’s nothing wrong with a horror movie being funny, but it can be problematic when the humor—intentional or otherwise—undermines the suspense of the film. If it was Mr. Shyamalan’s intention to create a strictly campy B picture, why waste the rich, sweeping cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (Philadelphia , The Silence of the Lambs)? The photography sets you up to expect a thrilling suspense film and then the writing leaves you with a half-baked Saturday morning serial installment.

But, as I said before, it’s really not all bad. The strongest parts of the movie are in the beginning, before the stilted characters have worn out their welcome and while the plot still seems novel. Mr. Wahlberg, a gifted actor, doesn’t have much to do as Elliot. He does manage to squeeze a remarkable amount of humor and charm out of a tepid, one-dimensional character. However, Ms. Deschanel (Elf, Almost Famous , Weeds) is one of the more believable people in the film as the quirky Alma. Poor John Leguizamo is just plain wooden as Julian. He is not to blame—the fault, dear Brutus, lies not within the stars but within the script. If Mr. Shyamalan ever reads this (which I doubt, but I can always dream) I hope he takes heed of the advice I am about to dispense: stop writing your own scripts. You can be an auteur and still let other people work on your scripts. Stanley Kubrick worked with other writers and used novels and plays as source material. Hitchcock knew that writing wasn’t his strong suit so he focused on what he was good at. If you don’t stop spreading your genius so thin you will keep on making mediocre pictures until the day you finally lapse into obscurity. Or you could hire a real screenwriter and compromise your vision just a teensy bit. Think about it M. Night.


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