Monday, June 16, 2008

The Happening ain’t

I really hadn’t planned on seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s the Happening. I’d always felt a bit burned by his films in the past, though I think I’ve somehow seen most of them. To me, his work suffers from over-promising and under-delivering. But it was Friday night and I was recovering from Thursday night’s extravagance. So there you go.

The basic plot of the Happening is this: Some unseen thing is causing people, upon exposure, to commit suicide—immediately and usually en masse. Science teacher Mark Wahlberg, his wife (the forever girlish Zooey Deschanel) and others flee the city in an attempt to avoid contact with whatever it is, with mixed success.

The film opens on two young women sitting on a bench in Central Park, one with an open book in her lap. Apropos of nothing, book girls announces, “I forgot where I was.” It sounds ominous to the audience, who know a bit about what they’re in for. Innocently, the other girl seems to realize the question pertains to the book and replies, “You’re at the part where…” and reminds her friend. Wait, so the girl who isn’t reading the book knows exactly where her friend is in the book? Yeah that happens. This forced interaction—created only to get that opening line—is a harbinger of the clunky dialogue to come.

The Happening is, quite simply, a disaster, and while watching it, it became clear to me that M. Night Shyamalan has no idea what he’s doing.

Much of the script is poorly written, and often awkward in its inclusion of details that Shyamalan surely intends to add authenticity to the language. Case in point, Deschanel on the phone to someone who might be her lover: “You’ve got to stop calling me. We had tiramisu, that’s it. It’s over.” Tiramisu? Did Wes Anderson walk on the set that day?

Shyamalan can’t even write believable newscaster dialogue.

There’s also the nonsensical “Do you like hot dogs?” scene, which feels like it’s aiming for a David Lynch-ian sense of unease via the bizarre. A more serious film buff could probably explain why Lynch and Anderson are able to employ odd dialogue successfully to create moods, and why it fails here. Perhaps it’s because there are plenty of odd visual details in their films (wardrobe, hairstyle) and the wacky dialogue simply fits better. Visually, the Happening looks about as odd as Footloose.

Wahlberg is completely unbelievable as a high school science teacher, and he struggles with a few of his lines as if he’s just learned some of the words during the run-through. Wahlberg can deliver funny, though, and this skill saves us from hating his character. Deschanel is simply flat and uninteresting.

But it’s Shyamalan’s decisions that make this thing a stinker from start to finish. Characters continually behave in ways that threaten the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Shyamalan’s blocking renders numerous scenes unbelievable (perhaps most notably, a concerned group of that gathers around a panicked woman on her cell phone talking to her daughter). And he haphazardly tosses in what might be red herrings that simply interrupt the flow of the scene (ominous nuclear reactors quietly spouting smoke in the distance in one scene).

One of the more impactful images (included in the trailer) is of construction workers willfully jumping off the top of the building they’re working on. Shot from below, we see them step into the sky and plummet toward us. For my taste, this scene is too close to one of the most nightmarish events in recent history, that of the World Trade Center victims leaping to their deaths. Shyamalan includes the sounds of these bodies hitting the ground, a sound those of us who watched footage from the Trade Center lobbies that day will not likely forget. Shyamalan’s borrowing of this most harrowing moment—for “entertainment”—is galling and careless.

When all is said and done, the Happening seems to be a quasi-zombie film, with [SPOILER ALERT; SKIP THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS] a message about being nice to Mother Earth and a possibly a commentary on consumer technology. If that sounds like an odd combination, well, it is.

As horrific as the idea of contagious mass suicide is, and as suspenseful as some of the images are, the affected individuals are a danger to no one but themselves (hence quasi-zombie). Additionally, the fleeing, the moments of comic relief (some of which are intentional), and what I’ve termed the Footloose quality to the look of the film (to reinforce the interruption of the naïveté of the everyday) further connect the Happening to zombie cinema.*

I won’t go into the Mother Earth part, other than to say it seems almost lazy to make “be nice to the planet” the primary message of a suspense film.

The consumer technology component is a strange and subtle theme. The print ad for the film shows Wahlberg and Deschanel standing amid dead bodies, one sporting an identifiable iPod, another with a cell phone in hand, equating gadgetry to death. In the film, it isn’t until our heroes’ phones have no signal that they seem to enter a safe area. And the final house they visit is noted for the absence of any electrical lines running to it. It’s completely off the grid. But whatever Shyamalan’s point about technology is, he never really makes it.

One almost gets the sense that Shyamalan’s creative process consist of him having striking visions of nightmarish scenes (often the ones that end up in the trailer) and that his task is to piece them together via a sensible story that incorporates these vignettes and delivers some point. The problem is that the stories are weaker than the vignettes and the points often feel like afterthoughts.

There’s no doubt Shyamalan is adept at creating mesmerizing visuals and compelling situations that persuade people to drop $12 at the theater. In the end, though, I think Shyamalan’s gift is not making interesting movies, but making interesting movie trailers.

* Another overlooked piece of the zombie cinema canon: Hotel Rwanda. No, I’m not kidding.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My favorite review of The Happening so far; It's like Shyamalan kicked you in the shins, farted in your mouth and then asked what you thought of it.

- bm