The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008)

Leave it to my parents to be my barometer on what the pretty typical movie-goer’s gut reaction to a movie should be.  Thing is, they think themselves to be movie experts with a little Hitchcock appreciation, while my dad basically thinks Shyamalan is something of a bold filmmaker, or some crap like that.  So yeah, wannabe cinephiles.  Jeez…  Anyway, I saw this with my dad, and after we got out, he said something very interesting.  He said this was a lot like “The Birds,” but Hitchcock had a much better grasp on the material.  He thought this was pretty much “The Birds” without the subtlety.  Now, when one thinks of “The Birds,” subtlety probably isn’t the first word to come to mind, especially regarding that movie’s second half when Tippi Hedren is just barraged by bluescreen seagulls for about 45 minutes.  It was basically Hitchcock using every means at his disposal to physically abuse this poor woman in her feature film debut.  But when I think about it, I realize that what my dad said was absolutely right, at least from a theoretical, if not necessarily stylistic, standpoint.  The subtlety of these two movies (or lack thereof) comes in the don’t-fuck-with-mother nature theme, and when all is said and done, I don’t necessarily like to compare “The Happening” to a movie 45 years its senior if I can help it, but I don’t think I can help it.  “The Birds” was a masterful thriller with a subtle message, and “The Happening” is awkwardly paced, sprinkled with random death scenes from another movie altogether, and a movie who’s message is splayed out in front of you like a fucking public service announcement.  That’s all there is to it.

Poor M. Night.  It’s obvious that the man is trying so hard to make “The Happening” as subtle as possible, but really, other than a select few scenes, he fails miserably.  He even tries making his patented Hitchcock-esque cameo overly-subtle, reduced to a voice on the phone.  Turns out, I thought this was a movie that couldn’t decide what it should be.  So much of it involved Marky Mark and friends just…traveling, the threat of a suicide-inducing neurotoxin far in the theoretical background.  And yes, some of this worked.  I didn’t buy into the whole thing with Marky Mark and Zooey trying to rebuild their marriage…I was bored by that, but what I did buy into was leaving the threat from afar up to our imagination: how news of mass suicides along the eastern seaboard aren’t seen, only presented to us as they’re presented to our heroes: as news.  It’s a fascinating device, depicting a wide-spread disaster solely from the point of view of a few, who deal with it in an area that’s not ground zero, and it’s been used before, both effectively (i.e. “Night of the Living Dead”) and near-disastrously (Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”).  Although, things basically spiraled into the outright silly when groups of refugees started running from the fucking wind.  It reminded me of that South Park episode where they’re all running from global warming 😛 .  And it’s too bad the star-power couldn’t live up to an interesting enough concept either.  Marky Mark…what a monotone, wet noodle he was here.  Where was the unbelievable energy and gift for acting he showed in “Boogie Nights” or even “The Departed?”  And god bless the beautiful Zooey Deschanel, she of probably the most stunningly beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, but the woman can’t act her way out of a paper bag.  Leave it to John Leguizamo of all people to pick up the slack, especially in a wonderful send-off scene 😕 .

I can’t help but wonder whether this would’ve been a better movie if Shyamalan just stuck with one idea, one style, and just followed the main characters from beginning to end.  Clearly the point is to put ordinary people in an extraordinary situation that they don’t understand, so that we see things as they see them, and only as they see them.  But why not stick with that, M. Night?  Even Spielberg (the great filmmaker Shyamalan was supposed to be the heir apparent to once upon a time…I think that’s gone by the boards a few duds later 😛 ) stuck with that concept for “War of the Worlds.”  That movie was lousy, but at least Spielberg stayed consistent.  So many times in “The Happening,” we interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming to bring you a gruesome death or two.  Now, I’m not saying the involuntary suicide scenes by the random populace are a complete disgrace, because I do have to admit that some of them are wildly imaginative and even exhilarating (the deaths involving lions in the zoo and later a huge lawnmower really tickled my sadistic side, I must say 🙂 ).  On their own, the blood ‘n guts and the sheer gratuitousness of the deaths are frightening, blunt, and they work because they stick with you.  But then put it in the context of everything else, and they’re like scenes out of another movie entirely.  It’s like “Final Destination” disguised as a message movie.  Sure the use of increasingly creative ways of showing people offing themselves makes for a thrilling watch, but for what point?  I was more thrilled and entertained watching the main characters, running from something they can’t identify or explain or even see, and wandering aimlessly.  A simple, low budget-feeling movie like that is a good idea.  A grand romp featuring incredibly imaginative death scenes is good for a laugh or two.  Put them together, though?  You’ve got chocolate-covered caesar salad: a bit of a mess of a movie that can’t decide what it is and can’t get out of its own way.

I said that subtlety is the name of the game when comparing “The Happening” to one of its obvious predecessors, “The Birds.”  If you want subtlety, like I said, my dad was right: “The Birds” is a masterpiece of that, while “The Happening” very nearly crashes and burns, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, look no further than the explanation for the disaster.  Hitchcock and his screenwriter Evan Hunter gave you no explanation whatsoever for why the birds of Bodega Bay gang up on the humans, and it was an ingenious device.  That allowed for a purely human focus on the characters, as we became one of them, with no more knowledge than they as to why this extraordinary phenomenon was happening.  “The Happening”, though…does the dumbing down of American movie audiences in the decades since the glory days of Hitchcock absolutely call for an iron-clad explanation as to why something extraordinary is happening?  Clearly Shyamalan tries to be “subtle” about an explanation in showing debate amongst the characters as to where the toxin is coming from…terrorists, plant life, nuclear power plants.  But let’s face it, about 10 minutes in the movie’s basically decided for you which explanation is most appropriate, and everything that happens after that revolves around that explanation that’s not technically set in stone, but…fuck it, it’s set in stone, who am I kidding?  Hell, even “Cloverfield” was better at leaving the explanation for a city-wide disaster up to character and audience speculation.  The “speculation” part of the explanation for the disaster in “The Happening” is almost non-existent and pretty much becomes a farce, even though Shyamalan wants you to think there’s speculation.

That explanation gives way to what really ground my gears, and that’s the don’t-mess-with-nature moral of the story.  OK, maybe not the moral itself since I consider myself a pretty big environmentalist and fully buy into the idea that we’re fucking up the planet at an unprecedented rate.  What got me was, again, how unsubtle Shyamalan made that message.  Going back to “The Birds,” there’s no explanation for what’s going on, just a look at how a few people are dealing with it, so that movie’s completely similar message concerning nature fighting back is a subtle as can be.  Hitchcock banks on his audience actually being smart enough to figure that out.  Today, though, we have the Michael Bay generation of movie-goers who couldn’t figure out the moral of a story if their lives depended on it.  They need their hands held and guided to the destination like fucking toddlers in a day care center, so naturally Shyamalan obliges.  From the first scene where Marky Mark practically preaches the importance of bees to the ecosystem to the ending where we all pretty much get a slap on the wrist and are told to leave nature alone lest we suffer the consequences, it’s all there, laid out for you like clothes are laid out for a little kid by his or her mom the night before.  It’s an important message, a powerful message, but one that’s been presented in ways so much more effective in the past.  In the end, “The Happening” is a daring film with a daring albeit completely asinine premise and even more daring execution, and it is a better movie than the utterly lousy “The Village” and “Unbreakable”, but it’s scattered in so many directions I felt like I was going to become disoriented and violently commit suicide 😛 .  Just as this movie couldn’t seem to find its way, I have a feeling that M. Night, former wunderkind and “the next Spielberg,” is coming dangerously close to losing his way too.


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