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The Happening
Reviewed by Laura Eldred, © 2008

Format: Movie
By:   M. Night Shyamalan
Genre:   Horror / drama
Review Date:   June 19, 2008
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

We need to collectively admit that Shyamalan has jumped the shark. Yes, The Sixth Sense was great; we never saw the twist coming, and we enjoyed watching that flick even more the second time. In Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson looked so cool with his purple coat billowing out behind him like pimped-out wings. Signs was an innovative look at the tried-and-true alien invasion film, where faith and family usurped the little green men's stage.

But throughout all these films, and especially in the last several (The Village, Lady in the Water, and now The Happening), there is a thread of pretentious, freshmen-in-college-wearing-a-beret and trying-to-impress-the-cool-kids smarminess that keeps even those films with promising premises, like this one, from any real degree of success.

I used to be able to ignore this pretentiousness, to forgive the movies their flaws because of their unique approaches to my beloved horror genre. It's only healthy to reimagine genre standbys like the ghost story, the alien invasion, the monster flick, and the mysterious virus every so often, and Shyamalan always at least tries to offer a new perspective. I respect him for that.

But having made one brilliant film nine years ago does not shield you forever.

Lady in the Water was true crap. As our reviewer Gary Mitchel noted, it hits you over and over with an oversized METAPHOR MALLET to make sure everyone "gets it." Happening isn't that bad, but the film wastes the promise of its premise in boring characters, a ridiculous explanation for the "happening" of the title, and terrible scripting that leads to far too much on-the-nose dialogue.

Again, Shyamalan feels the need to make sure everyone "gets it." It's ultimately disappointing and depressing. Disappointing because the premise is promising, and depressing because that promised premise was utterly wasted, and because we're likely to get more such schlock from Shyamalan for the foreseeable future.

But, you might ask, what happens in The Happening, and what's so promising about its premise?

[SPOILERS] An event unfolds across the northeast, starting in population centers and filtering out to smaller towns. People stop in their tracks. And then they kill themselves by whatever means are easily available.

This is the best part of the movie. The local beat cop shoots himself in the head, sure. But construction workers also leap off tall buildings, zoo workers walk into the lion exhibit and bait the beasts, and men turn on riding lawnmowers then lie down in front of them.[END SPOILERS]

This stuff is creative, creepy, and gory, and no horror film yet has done something quite like this. Maybe we could have a sequel full of nothing but creative death sequences: Faces of Shyamalan, In which Shyamalan sticks his own head into a blender. Or drinks mercury from a compact fluorescent light bulb. Good times.

But why is this happening? No one's ever entirely sure, but the film offers hare-brained possibilities. The mechanism is that the virus/ biological attack/ blargh severely messes with our hard-wiring, reversing our self-preservation switch. Is this a terrorist attack? A biological agent in testing accidentally released by our own government?

OR (and surely this is the most plausible!) an evolved defense mechanism of the planet's green life (grass, plants, trees), a warning shot against the human race, which is destroying the planet?

Guess which one we're supposed to believe?

The event has some other characteristics; the wind goes nuts whenever the "blargh" [as we'll call it) is about to unleash its suicide goodies. It somehow senses the size of human groups and goes for larger groups first. It has a precisely limited shelf life, stopping whole hog (or whole tiger with belly full of human parts) randomly. It's limited to the Northeast U.S., attacking nowhere else in America. How all these things fit with the "angry trees" hypothesis is never clarified, though partially that's on purpose, as Marky Mark tells us we must have a proper respect for the mysterious acts of nature.

But it still makes no sense that various, quite different, forms of plant life across many states would simultaneously evolve this ability and simultaneously unleash it, that the attack would stop at the Pennsylvania state line, that it would let small groups of four people pass, but not ten, and that it would stop, precisely, exactly, at the same time across all those states.

Sure, this is a horror movie; as I've said, we don't usually need a lot of plausibility in a horror flick. But the movie tries to pretend that this makes sense on some level. It has Mark Wahlberg playing a high school science teacher and talking about testing hypotheses and so forth. The movie ACTS like this explanation is smart and interesting instead of just weird and implausible.

I might forgive this implausibility if the movie had decently written dialogue and/or interesting characters. But everyone's two dimensional; Marky Mark is the "scientist" looking for explanations, he's in a troubled marriage with Zooey Deschanel. Their marital troubles are nicely ironed out by the "happening," which then ends happily for our two main characters. Shyamalan has usually done a better job with characterization, but not in this movie. Apocalyptic event as backdrop for saving-a-marriage. We've never seen that before, have we? Even that would be fine, but those characters never gain more depth.

Because Shyamalan has become paranoid that people don't "get" his films, he adds a lot of unnecessarily repeated exposition, as if he's convinced the average film viewer has an IQ of 58. An overview of the blargh is repeated at least three times. I don't appreciate a movie treating me like I'm nine. Shyamalan, please go back to assuming we have a brain, even if it means that we don't get it. I prefer being allowed to make my own conclusions, even if they're wrong, to having a mallet shoved down my throat.

It's fun to sometimes be confused by a movie, to think the filmmaker is trying to do something you haven't quite sorted out, to spend a week or so thinking about it in your free time. That's great filmmaking there, and Shyamalan seems to have given up on doing anything more than his formula of neat premise, creepy atmosphere, twist, repeat.

Before someone comes along and says, "Well, you just don't get it," let me say that I do. The film tries to show we have terrorized our planet and we're thereby killing ourselves, just a little more slowly than people do in the film. The demands of an increasing population and increasing population density in certain areas have a possibly irrevocable toll on our world. This is a message worth hearing, but I give credit to Shyamalan for having the original thought of couching it within a horror movie. But the execution of that thought leaves much to be desired.

Why has this happened? I imagine Shyamalan living in a penthouse apartment, surrounded by beret-wearing yes-men and a personal harem of groupie beauties. He has a dumbwaiter that brings in food and supplies from the bourgeois outside, allowing him to leave his castle only when absolutely necessary. He reads critics' reviews of his movies, fumes at their stupidity, wonders why people don't "get" his brilliance, because it's never that the movie's subpar, it's always that people don't get it).

He writes first drafts, adding explanation and dialogue a la Metaphor Mallet, people tell him they're brilliant, and then he makes the film. No revisions, no discussion.

This is the last nail in the coffin for me. Rent it on video if you're a Shyamalan fan, but there's no need to see it in the theatres.

Unless they add a scene where Shyamalan jumps over a shark on waterskis before the shark dismembers and eats him.

RevSF staff writer Laura Eldred gets it. You bet your sweet bippy she does.

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