Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2008

Plant food

Humans are wiping themselves off the planet in Shyamalan's schizophrenic 'The Happening'

The Happening
20th Century Fox
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Frank Collison and Betty Buckley
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
(out of four)

For a filmmaker with seemingly so much confidence - cockiness, even - M. Night Shyamalan sure likes to hedge his bets. The Happening is his third straight failure, and it is his most tone-deaf film to date.

One scene, it attempts to be a quiet, character-driven meditation on the potential extinction of the human race. The next, it's going over-the-top with campy gore. It even has an overtly (if disingenuous) political theme running through it. Something for everyone!

If anyone scoffs at it as a serious thriller, Shyamalan has a readymade excuse: "Jeez, lighten up! Shucks, I was just making a campy B-movie is all. Don't take me so seriously! Didn't you see that part where that the guy got his arms torn off by lions? Ha ha ha!"

However, his conflicting intentions come across all too clearly. A film that opens with eerie disquiet, with something genuinely terrifying in its suddenness and ambiguity, proceeds to glide into camp territory and spends the rest of the film straddling a line that can't possibly be straddled. What's disheartening is that what Shyamalan attempts initially seems to be working. Say what you will about the man, but he knows how to create a mood with visuals and music as well as anyone, and some of the film's early moments are among the most chilling images I've seen in quite some time.

It happens so suddenly. People are going about their days. Suddenly they get confused. They stop mid-step. They are motionless, silent. And then they kill themselves.

They hang themselves with hoses. They stab themselves in the neck. They leap off buildings. They use a gun.

They do so in bunches; it starts right in the middle of Central Park.

What Shyamalan starts to create in certain passages of the film, he just as easily undoes in subsequent scenes, when the Event is broken down, hashed out, analyzed. Then the thought of people dropping dead in mass numbers no longer seems that foreboding; all of a sudden it seems we're in another Shyamalan Monster Movie. The monster might not be a real monster, but it sure is treated like one.

The Happening suffers from an overload of exposition and explanation. Those who have survived so far, including high-school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg, in what certainly must be his worst performance) and his young wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), treat the problem like a logical event. Is it a terrorist attack? Is it an airborne virus? Is it only attacking within major cities? Is it contagious? What direction is it headed? Is it Planet Earth's allegorical attempt to rid itself of the plague of human life?

All of these possibilities and more are discussed openly and rationally, and characters make their decisions accordingly. It doesn't stop the event from subsiding - in fact, it only continues to spread - but it certainly does take the sense of mystery out of it. The fact is the film would have been much more effective without explanation; this is one of those instances where ambiguity would have worked in the movie's favor, where ambiguity could be the substance of the story.

Any attempt to rationally discuss such an event - like trying to solve a math problem or drawing up a war strategy - seems inevitably insufficient and even silly. The images Shyamalan gives us and the surreal atmosphere speak much louder than anything else.

Maybe he didn't trust those strengths of his enough to make the event work on its own, unexplained terms. Maybe he really was just going for B-movie standards and old habits just got in the way. But I don't buy that. Too many moments - several scenes in Mrs. Jones' (Betty Buckley) house, for example - are patented Shyamalan. Quiet, thoughtful moments between characters; moments of dread and silence; moments of palpable fear and sadness and mourning.

And then aforementioned Guy intentionally gets his arms eaten off by lions. Too bad, M. Night, 'cause for a second there you had us. We are not laughing with you. We are laughing at you.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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