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The Happening May Seal M. Night Shyamalan’s Downfall

The Happening
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Fox, 2008

I don’t know how often this happens in the history of creative expression, but it’s curious to see a man like M. Night Shyamalan start with three big hits (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) and then falter with audiences on what is sure to be his third straight letdown (after The Village and Lady in the Water). I’m actually different from most people on Shyamalan: I really didn’t like Signs, but I kind of liked Lady in the Water, one of the biggest critical whipping boys of the decade. Still, Lady wasn’t up to his high standards, and just like most people, I’ve now got three movies of his I dislike.

Maybe Shyamalan is one of those guys who had a select few good ideas and simply ran out. Years ago he said something about not wanting to do a sequel to Unbreakable, clearly the film nerd’s Citizen Kane of his work, because he “didn’t feel the love” for that film. It was clearly a letdown after The Sixth Sense broke the top 10 domestic box office back in 1999. But I can’t imagine a sequel to Unbreakable being any worse than anything else he’s decided to do since then. In fact, that very well could have infused some more life into his work.

But on to the task at hand: The Happening concerns a strange occurrence that begins in Central Park in New York City: people start getting confused, stop dead in their tracks, and then look for ways to kill themselves. The original thought is that it’s a terrorist attack, using some sort of toxin that blocks inhibitors in the brain that order self-preservation. In Philadelphia, concerns that they may be hit start taking place. Our heroes are science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo).

Julian tells Elliot that he remembers walking in on Alma before the wedding, crying her eyes out, knowing that she wasn’t ready for the commitment. But no time for that now: everyone needs to get on a train and get the hell out of Philly, which does get attacked (funny, there’s people just walking around without a care in the world), and again it starts in a park. Julian has his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) but his wife might be in trouble. The last he heard she was going towards Princeton. He has to go find her, so after the train makes an unscheduled stop in a small town in Pennsylvania, he leaves Jess with Elliot and Alma.

Elliot develops a theory that maybe the vegetation is striking back, finding large groups of people threatening and unleashing the toxin. It makes sense, it started in a park…and Elliot begins to find things that prove his theory. Although later some curious other things happen that make that theory incomplete. The three run from place to place trying to find food and shelter, eventually finding Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), a lonely old woman sheltered from the outside world.

Much of Shyamalan’s downfall is exemplified in this movie: a bunch of buildup leading to an unsatisfying ending. There is a sort of rule of thumb to this: you can have a bunch of buildup as long as the ending is thoroughly enjoyable, or you can have a bunch of satisfying scenes aside from the buildup and the ending can even be a letdown, and people will still overall enjoy your movie. Obviously, having both pays off the best: this is the staple of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. But ever since, it seems like Shyamalan has been building movies up with no good payoff: the journey is long and tedious with nothing keeping us going except for the promise of a good ending. The Village is the ultimate example, and The Happening is like a companion piece, although The Happening doesn’t even have a “whammy” ending. The Happening looks like an attempt to tread back on Signs territory, but with no suspense.

Shyamalan has taken the fears of the possible effects of global warming and strange phenomena like the millions of bees disappearing and has tried to incorporate this into a sci-fi horror tale. But it seems like a long way to go just to say, “Nature is pissed.” Had he wanted to make a movie of real terror, he would have made other problems for our heroes to solve: maybe people become murderous in addition to being suicidal. What about dogs and cats and other animals, including insects? In making a movie about the prelude to the apocalypse, a lot of fun was missed by not just making it the middle of the apocalypse.

All the stuff in this movie could have been told in twenty minutes, then the real action could have begun. Shyamalan doesn’t seem to understand that making arty pop entertainment, prettily shot, with a couple of scary moments, isn’t what people want to see. If he went back to his earlier movies and saw the entertainment throughout he would know what’s missing here. I really like Shyamalan; I hope he gets out of this rut. But after a string of curious work, I wonder if he’s going to get the chance. Probably not on this stage, not for awhile.


Comment from KW
Time: June 13, 2008, 4:35 pm

Big M Night fan here. Didn’t love the Village, and only partially enjoyed Lady in the Water.

But the book that came out about him, together with the interviews I’ve read this month… boy does he sound cocky and stubborn–not a good combination in a filmmaker who’s movies keep getting worse.

There is always some signature stuff in an M Night movie, particularly his use of color and the way he frames his shots… but even the previews for The Happening made it look a little less than exciting. Too bad.

Unbreakable 2 would rule!

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