Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

I'm not sure if writer/director M. Night Shyamalan meant this film's title ironically. It seems unlikely, but then again, it also seems unlikely that a man who has made so many other films would produce anything this hacky and amateurish. Yet here we are.

Nothing happens in The Happening. Absolutely nothing happens. This is a premise, not a story. In fact, The Happening lacks even the barest bones of a story. There is no beginning, middle or end. There is no inciting incident. Characters do not change, grow nor develop. Events do not progress in a logical manner. People are introduced and then discarded thoughtlessly.

I think it might be time for us to become seriously concerned about M. Night Shyamalan. Not for his career, but simply his mental health and well-being. It's not normal for a person who had, only a few years before, mastered the craft of screenwriting and directing to suddenly and without cause forget, on the most basic level, how to put a movie together. We're not talking about a dip in quality here; The Happening is like the work of a completely different man than The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, hell even Signs. Has Manoj suffered some sort of head trauma? Has he become hooked on oxycontin? Should we start considering a nationwide cinematic intervention?

Because his last two efforts - The Village and Lady in the Water - were themselves so dreadful, much of the discussion about The Happening and its complete failure to entertain or enlighten will naturally focus on relative comparisons. Though I still maintain that Lady in the Water remains Shyamalan's most delusional and embarrassing work to date, overall, it does have a few things going for it that Happening does not. Like, you know, a story to tell. Not a good story, mind you. But a story nonetheless. The Village has a reasonably watchable story; it just relies on a nonsensical twist ending.

The Happening is Cinema of the Inert, the introduction of a concept in the opening 5 minutes of a movie that is meant to sustain an audience's attention for 100 minutes. I'm noticing this about Shyamalan's work more and more. His initial films - The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable - certainly had high-concept premises, but they developed them into narratives that were themselves compelling. With stuff like Lady in the Water and The Happening, it's as if he no longer feels the need to tell stories. He thinks a single one of his ideas, alone and unencumbered, should be enough to sustain an audience's attention. He's mistaken.

About 3/4 of the movie is composed of shots just like this one, in which Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and a young girl run away from nothing through the Pennsylvania countryside. Print this still out 300 times, turn it into a flip book and save yourself $10 ($20 with popcorn and parking!)

We open in Central Park, where a large crowd of people suddenly stop what they are doing, freeze in place for a moment, and then kill themselves in the quickest and most convenient method possible. News reports inform us that the phenomenon is sweeping through the city.

Cut to Philadelphia, where the school of science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is being evacuated in response to what is perceived as a terrorist threat in NYC. Moore and a co-worker, Julian (John Leguizamo), plot to get their families out of Philadelphia and into the countryside, to wait out this weird suicide thing.

THAT'S IT, FOLKS. That's all that happens. The rest of the film follows Elliott, his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), Julian and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) as they wander around central Pennsylvania in a confused daze. They meet no one of consequence. They find out small details about what's going on via listening to radios or watching TV's, or from meeting random helpful strangers who introduce new information and then disappear.

I can't really express to you how many basic, fundamental errors Shyamalan makes here, strictly in terms of the screenplay and structure. Movies are driven by conflict. This is the single guiding principle for pretty much all drama - you introduce characters and set them at opposing goals. It's not really that hard. Everyone from Uwe Boll to the writers of "Two and a Half Men" have managed it.

Not only does The Happening lack any kind of tangible antagonist or enemy, it lacks any kind of conflict whatsoever. There are two types of scenes - scenes in which Wahlberg finds out something about the "happening" second-hand and scenes in which Wahlberg watches people in the middle distance kill themselves in increasingly laughable ways. You may notice, neither of those scenes involves any kind of conflict.

So you get a lot - A LOT - of shots of newscasters announcing that the plot is developing somewhere off-screen. And a lot of statements like this:

"Hey, everyone! I'm a stranger who has just walked here from 10 miles down the road. Everyone's dead down there! We're going to have to go some other way!"

(At one point, I shit you not, a random stranger shows Elliott a grisly death scene that apparently happened hours before on her iPhone! Are you fucking kidding me? He couldn't come up with a way to actually have anything happen on screen in his own fucking movie? Shyamalan's reduced to inserting footage into his own movie via YouTube?!)

It's also clear that the complete lack of conflict has confused and frustrated the actors. Deschanel has just given up on giving a performance, sleepwalking through the film. Wahlberg seems to be playing the character as a likable goofball, even though there's only one or two jokes and he should by all rights be traumatized. The most compelling bit of dialogue in the entire film is played between Wahlberg and a potted plant.

At a random point, the film just ends, without purpose or explanation or any kind of pay-off or showdown or denouement whatsoever. The last scene is meant to be chilling, but it's so obvious what's coming and so silly by that point that it actually plays like a joke. And that first credit - "A Film By M. Night Shyamalan" - is the punchline.


One final note on this film, because I think you all get the idea at this point. Unless Shyamalan is just playing dumb because it's easier, his understanding of the Theory of Evolution is seriously lacking. The way evolution is discussed in this film, by characters presented as scientists, is not only wrong but egregiously so, misleading in the extreme. I have read critics suggest that the film is an argument for Intelligent Design, but I think this is just a reaction to the fact that Shyamalan's misrepresentation of evolution and biology resembles the fabrications of ID proponents. Shyamalan's ignorance about evolution resembles Ben Stein's, but I'm not sure if they're working towards the same goal.

Suffice it to say, individual living things cannot spontaneously evolve in response to a predator. When biologists use a term like "rapid evolution," they're using the word "rapid" in the relative sense. It's like "taking fewer than several million years," not "by Wednesday." It's almost irresponsible to be this cavalier about representing bonafide scientific information, even in a silly fictional movie.


excalipoor said...

hehe. marky mark talking to a fake plant was funny. like u said. good premise, but no plot. he should just stick with his directing and let someone else do the script for him. may be kevin smith?

zeroediting said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.K. said...

I KNOW! It was horrible. I found it amusing though throughout due to how incredibly horrible it was. I was also totally perplexed by the blog posts I've seen calling it an Intelligent Design movie. I think it was more a knee-jerk reaction to Marky Mark saying "It's just a theory" early on. No ID supporter would go along with any of that evolution talk, no matter how crazy and wrong it was.

Also, when I got out of the movie (I tweeted this), I couldn't help but think of Hitchcock's The Birds. This move was like that horrible movie again, but with something even less interesting: trees!

BTW, I have to say the old lady pointing at the camera and accusing Marky Mark of stealing her stuff nearly made me shit myself. I mean I haven't been that scared in a movie in YEARS. To a certain degree, I think the total monotony of the movie was there to set me up for that one moment of utter surprise and fright. And it was immediately turned to laughter at Marky Mark's responses to her.

Richard Pascoe said...

So nothing happens , nothing , maybe he got the idea from seinfeld.
Unfortunately shymalen ( excuse the spelling ) is not known for his sense of humour

Lons said...

Yeah, that scene with the old lady is HI-larious.

"You're here to steal my stuff!"

"Oh my God, old lady, I would totally never do that to you."

"Get out of here!"

"Hey, I can see you're a little upset...Let's talk about this later."

Ursos said...

Yes! Your review is awesome. Personally, I couldn't make it past the HORRIBLE acting. I'm no actor, sir, but I know I could have done way better than Marky Mark.

Halfway through when I saw it (in a packed theater with no empty seats, mind you) some guy stood up, yelled out "DONE!" and left. We should have followed, but I was sure there would be a redeaming factor somewhere in that mess of a movie. Nope. I was wrong. Oh well...

At least I saw the Hulk after, to cleanse the palate.