STARRING: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey
Deschanel, John Leguizamo
2008, 88 Minutes, Directed by:
M. Night Shyamalan
Don’t say it out loud, but we actually think that M. Night Shyamalan’s latest
movie wasn't all that bad . . .
Just don’t spread it around.
We’ll lose all credibility with our fellow movie critics. Over the past few
years director Shyamalan has become the fashionable whipping boy amongst cynical
critics. After all, who can blame them? After kicking off his career with the
hugely popular Sixth Sense (and come on, who did see that ending coming?)
he went on to the interesting, but flawed, Unbreakable (starring Bruce
Willis again). From there on it was all downhill, making Shyamalan the career
equivalent of Orson Welles who also kicked off his Hollywood career on a high
note (with Citizen Kane), but went on steadily downhill from there on
until the career low point of doing a voice-over for a lame Transformers
First Shyamalan gave us
hydrophobic aliens in Signs, then a “twist” ending we
all saw coming a mile off with The Village and the
less said about Lady in the Water, the better. So who
could blame overreacting critics for treating Shyamalan like the proverbial Uwe
Boll, even though all his movies actually had their good bits and is nowhere as
bad as anything by the auteur of BloodRayne? In fact Shyamalan is a more
like celluloid Stephen King than he is an Orson Welles. Sixth Sense is by no
stretch of the imagination a Citizen Kane after all.
Like Stephen King, Shyamalan is
quite good with build-up, but underwhelming when it comes to resolving his
tales. Whereas Stephen King with his rep as “the world’s best-selling author”
has frightened off wimpy editors who should cut down on his verbosity (but
don’t), M. Night Shyamalan inhabits a cocoon bubble of his own. After all, he is
now a true “auteur”, being credited as the sole writer, producer and director of
The Happening. Like Stephen King needs an editor to cut down on his
overlong prose (especially on his latest novels), Shyamalan needs a co-author to
rein in his worst instincts. There is a very good movie hidden somewhere in
The Happening, but Shyamalan needed someone to do another rewrite of his
Critics hate Shyamalan’s movies
because of their mix of the patently ridiculous, the over-earnest and (perhaps
most frustratingly) the very good. We liked The Happening, but the movie
suffers from all the same mistakes as his previous movies. We just believe that
in The Happening the good elements actually outweigh the bad ones.
"A mix of the patently ridiculous, the over-earnest and
(perhaps most frustratingly) the very good."
As you might know by now,
The Happening has a kick-ass premise: one day people in New York’s Central
Park start committing suicide for no apparent reason. Soon this wave of
unexplained suicides spread across the city to the outlying regions. Frightened
residents of nearby towns start fleeing the area. But what is causing this
outbreak of mass suicides? Is it a terrorist attack? A biological warfare virus
developed by the CIA that has escaped? And how do you escape something which is
invisible and is probably spread though the air in any case?
The Happening follows a
science teacher (Mark Wahlberg), his much-younger-looking wife (Zooey Deschanel),
colleague and his eight-year-old daughter trying to escape the coming suicide
virus. The Stephen King analogy is more than apt as one can easily have imagined
the bespectacled one dreaming up The Happening (it in fact shares some
ideas with King’s recent Cell novel).
Like many Stephen King novels
though, The Happening is great with build-up, but the movie’s ending is
too arbitrary and predictable to be truly satisfying. While on board for the
ride, The Happening is great for the most part, but afterwards lots of minor
plot holes come to mind. If it is an airborne virus that causes people to kill
themselves in a specific area, just how did anyone manage to gather corpses for
autopsies (as one news report implies)? Why isn’t anyone wearing face masks of
some sort? It probably won’t help, but people in a panic usually would wear them
in any case.
There are lots of other
problems with The Happening as well. [WARNING SPOILERS! – Do not
read any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet!] The explanation
ultimately given for the mysterious happenings is that plants and trees have
evolved and are giving off an invisible spore to kill off their natural enemy –
namely man. We kinda dug this ecological Nature vs. Man angle. After all, if
Nature had half a brain cell it would have tried to kill of humanity and its
polluting SUVs and factories a long time ago! Anyone seen just what we are doing
to this planet lately?
seems to have stepped off his religious soap box he occupied with Signs
and taken up an ecological cause one. Shyamalan – Eco Warrior! All very
fashionable . . .
But as an explanation to the
events it is patently ridiculous no matter how many forced “scientific” dialogue
he works into his screenplay. In fact The Happening is quite ham-fisted
in this regard. We loved the J.G. Ballard-ish overtones of The Happening,
but repeatedly forcing an explanation down the audiences’ throats for onscreen
events is a mistake. Some unexplained phenomena should just remain that . . .
unexplained. This is a lesson that every
X-Files episode knew at heart. A
more lingering sense of mystery would have served the material better.
Still, there is a lot to like
in The Happening. Like Life Itself, Shyamalan’s movies are about the
journey and not the destination. The ending is a disappointment because of its
arbitrary nature, but at least it isn’t one of those forced “twist endings” of
the director’s previous movies.
But don’t take our word for it.
We here at the Sci-Fi Movie Page are just real suckers for End-of-the-World
movies and probably liked recent post-apocalyptic movies such as Will Smith’s
recent I Am Legend, The
Mist (a much better movie than this one) and
Cloverfield more than is socially acceptable to admit to. The Happening
has a strong premise, and with Shyamalan’s neo-1970’s filmic approach the film
comes across as a mix between Panic in the Year Zero, Roger Corman
efforts such as The Last Woman on Earth, and a J.G.
Ballard short story. It is high on brooding post-9/11 paranoid atmosphere, some
haunting visuals (construction workers jumping off a tall building for instance)
and a desolate sense of landscape. The humans may become lost in that landscape
at times, but their dilemma is still involving.
So sorry if we don’t partake in
any Shyamalan-bashing this time round. It’s always fun and we’ve had our fair
share of it now to be honest. But it won’t be fair this time around.
Make no mistake though: The
Happening is not a “comeback” movie for Shyamalan. Critics will tear it
apart. One can already imagine the snooty “it should have called The Trees
instead” comments. On exiting the cinema one excitable fellow critic huffed that
the movie was “unforgivable”. No, sitting through the likes of
Prisoners of the Lost Universe and
Warriors of the Wasteland is
unforgivable. The Happening is simply not as good as it could have been.
However if you like a good
post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale as much as the rest of us, then you’d ignore all
the critics and go see The Happening . . .