Review: The Happening

June 14, 2008 at 11:00 pm Leave a comment

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a huge M. Night Shyamalan fan. The moment I walked out of the theatre after watching The Sixth Sense, I knew I had just experienced something that cinema was made for. His follow up, Unbreakable, was a complete surprise, doing away with flashy special effects and giving us a very human and realistic superhero story that could fit easily on film as well as on a comic book panel. Shyamalan really hit his stride with Signs, a film that is just as much about religion as it is about aliens (maybe even more so). Signs also has one of the most heartbreaking and shocking final acts I’ve ever seen. In 2004, he follows that up The Village, a film that many consider the beginning of the end for Shyamalan’s career. I think those people are crazy. A lot of people scoffed at the ‘twist’ in this film, and I agree that it is pretty goofy, however, I felt a real sense of dread early on in the first act, and that dread hangs over the rest of the film like a thick fog. I was kept on edge for almost the entire picture. 2006 saw the release of Lady in the Water, and it was quite the departure from Shyamalan’s other works. It was billed not as a thriller, but as a fairytale and I guess that’s pretty accurate. No real twist in that movie, just a modern-day fairytale that had some nice acting moments for the ensemble cast. Unfortunately, many people didn’t buy the payoff at the end and dismissed this movie. While I still enjoyed the movie, I agree that it was M. Night Shyamalan’s weakest effort.

Until now.

The Happening is a return to more familiar ‘thriller’ territory for Shyamalan. It starts off in New York City’s Central Park, where people begin to commit acts of suicide randomly. These acts spread beyond the borders of the park as a construction worker watches as dozens of people simply walk off the edge of buildings, plummeting to their deaths. In Philadelphia, high school science teacher Eliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) gets pulled out of class and into a teachers only meeting. There, they find out that something is happening all over the north eastern United States, something is causing people to kill themselves and they attribute the cause to a chemical or biological attack by terrorists.. The schools close, and everyone is told to go home. Eliot is invited by math teacher and friend Julian (John Leguizamo) to get on a train and stay with his family.

Eliot goes home and we meet his spacey wife, Alma, who’s glued to the television, watching reports about the freak occurrences. They’re told it’s some kind of toxin released into the air. They then meet Julian and his young daughter Jess and the group heads into the unknown as they attempt to outrun and ride out whatever it is that’s happening.

Sounds like a great premise, right? And it is, for the most part. I won’t give away who or what is releasing the toxin, but I will say that it will either surprise you or piss you off. I was among the latter. I’m willing to buy whatever weird explanation M. Night Shyamalan wants to throw at us, but I guess I went into the theatre with the wrong expectations. Unfortunately, I hold Shyamalan in the highest regards as a storyteller, and when he disappoints it really stings. The problem lies within the script. One review I read stated that the movie is nothing but a really good first act, and it’s true. The setup is great: people inexplicably kill themselves, and it’s not a few people, it’s whole towns and possibly even cities whose populations are decimated, and no one knows why. The payoff at the end may not satisfy the average moviegoer that wants everything explained by the time the credits roll.

The acting has its ups and downs. I strongly feel that Mark Wahlberg was wrong for this role. I really do like him as an actor, and there are moments where you can tell Wahlberg’s Eliot is on the verge of breaking down and freaking out while at the same time trying to maintain his cool for his sake and the sake of everyone under his charge. But there are other times where his line delivery is so wooden, it stands out like a sore thumb. Director’s aren’t supposed to tell the actors how to say their lines, but in some scenes, I would’ve stepped in and said, “Sorry, Mark, but could you say the line like this?” It’s like Wahlberg was trying to supress his more…urban speech tendencies, when he should have let them all out. Maybe it would have helped.

Zooey Deschanel was all wrong for this movie. She has this perpetually spacey look to her, like she’s always daydreaming. For the character, I understand why Shyamalan would want Deschanel for the role, but the problem is I don’t think she can act all that great. There are moments where she’s trying, but I’m just not feeling her performance. There’s also very little chemistry between her and Wahlberg, which sucks because a lot of the subtext of the film relies on their relationship (more on that later).

John Leguizamo, however, played his role fine. He’s apparently Eliot’s best friend and only has Eliot’s well-being in mind when he begins to question Alma openly in front of Eliot. He’s slightly distrustful of Alma as he believes she hasn’t fully committed to her marriage with Eliot. Leguizamo also plays his role as a family man very well and with some weight. I really felt for him as he began to worry about his wife, whom he has lost contact with when riding on the train. There’s also a great moment when he decides he’s going to go search for her, and he leaves Jess in the care of Alma and Eliot. Alma tells him she will watch after her, but Julian, still being distrustful, looks Alma dead in the eye and says, “Don’t take her hand unless you mean it.” It’s no longer Julian, Eliot’s friend and colleague, but Julian, protective father and worried husband.

Just as the acting had highs and lows, the movie overall had its share of hits and misses. What I’m glad Shyamalan avoided were these scenes of mass hysteria and panic as thousands of people flee the populated areas of the east coast. The only time we see lots of people in one area trying to deal with the events is when Eliot and his group encounter other groups on a country road. All these people realize that there’s no safe direction to go in, and that they’re screwed if they stay, screwed if they go. It’s actually quite an effective scene. For the most part, Shyamalan decided to focus on the plight of this small group of people and leave you wondering what the bigger picture looks like. This is somewhat realistic if you imagine yourself in a similar situation. As you move to the less populated areas, you begin to lose contact with the outside world, then your own survival becomes your only priority and you ignore what else is going on.

What also worked, for me, were the scenes where they’re fleeing the airborne toxin and an ominous wind is chasing them. It is slightly creepy when you think about it; how do you outrun wind? How do you shut it out completely? You’re not really safe anywhere. This constant fear is something that Shyamalan want us to focus on. Not necessarily the fear of this suicide-inducing toxin, but the fear of fear itself. This toxin makes us kill ourselves in whatever way we can, so image if you’re afraid of heights. All of a sudden, you feel compelled to hurl yourself off the roof of your house, face first. Or maybe you feel queasy at the sight of blood, but you decided you’re going to open up the veins in your wrist and bleed to death. The possibilities can really make one uneasy.

There’s also a little bit of comedy thrown in for good measure. While it may seem out of place in a paranoia thriller where people kill themselves for no reason, it works. The scene with Eliot in the model home of a housing project was really funny.  Also, Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who lensed Shyamalan’s Signs, is in fine form and he knows how to make use of the landscape to build tension.  However, I will say that there are a couple of cliche camera angles here and there, which makes me wonder if Brick Mason, Shyamalan’s storyboard artist, was on board for this movie.

What doesn’t work is some of the subtext. The things I enjoy in Shyamalan’s movies aren’t the things that are so clear. In The Sixth Sense, I believe the movie to be about communication between loved ones, and not just about ghosts. Unbreakable was about finding your place in life, something you’re good at and focusing your energy toward that or else you may never be happy in life. Signs was about religion and our connection to a higher power. In The Happening, I’m assuming the subtext was about our fears and what makes us afraid, and there’s also this story about Alma and Eliot as they attempt to rekindle their marriage in the midst of this panic.

Partly due to the acting, and mostly due to an underdeveloped subplot in the script, this relationship between the Eliot and Alma just doesn’t work. There’s a scene near the end when the movie attempts to reach this emotional climax, but it just misses the mark (I blame Zooey Deschanel’s acting skills). Shyamalan did the emotional climax thing better in Signs with Mel Gibson and Rory Culkin.

Overall, this is a movie that I may have to watch a second time, and maybe I’ll like it more then. That’s what happened to me with Lady in the Water, thought it was really flawed the first time, but during a second pass, I found myself liking it more. Unfortunately, my initial experience with The Happening left me wanting more, like a true second and third act. Again, it’s a great premise, it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Sorry, M. Night Shyamalan, you’re still one of my favorites, but this one doesn’t do you justice.

6/10

On a side note, I know I kind of laid it on thick with my dislike of Zooey Deschanel. I want to like her as an actress, but given a lead role, she just doesn’t do it for me. She was OK in Almost Famous and Elf, but she really weighed down the Sci-Fi miniseries Tin Man and here, her whacked-out mile-long stare didn’t do her any favors.

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