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The Happening M. Night Shyamalan’s Best Since Signs

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

I love how The Happening was getting hit by a lot of critics before they even saw the damn thing as a “Make it or Break it Film” for M. Night Shyamalan. To think for even two seconds that this guy is going to be hurting for a job for the next ten years or so is asinine. He’s already working on, as I write this, a big budget live action adaptation of the anime Airbender series. I think the guy will be able to keep food in the house.

Sure, M. Night has an ego as does most everyone in Hollywood. Hell, do you think for two seconds that most of the critics that write about Night’s work don’t have a fucking ego the size of Texas? The answer to that rhetorical question would be yes by the way.

I’m not here to be an M. Night apologist however, nor do I think he would care since he doesn’t know me from Adam. I’m here to review his new film The Happening which I found to be easily his best film since Signs (A movie that the Projectionist and I completely disagree on). And even more so I found the film to be quite good for the majority of the running time.

The Happening is a cautionary horror tale on nature’s ability to fight back if we fuck with it. It’s not what I would call an eco-friendly story; I think it’s more along the lines of a “what-If” scenario which Night loves as much as Rod Serling did, a man that he gets compared to quite often.

I purposely avoided reading most of the pre-release stories on the film and all of the reviews until I could see it, but the film is pretty straight forward, and doesn’t have the traditional M. Night twist at the end, and to be honest I have to applaud the man for that. I think he’s relying more here on his storytelling abilities, and the man can weave as good a yarn as anyone.

Even in his much ballyhooed Lady in the Water, Night still showed his good sense of storytelling. Lady was a film I didn’t overall like that much, but I found it a lot more interesting than his previous film, The Village which actually has some defenders a few years after the fact. I’ve seen it since and still don’t like the film at all, but I can understand why people might look the other way when watching it.

I think my favorite parts of The Happening are the early scenes where Night shows us how the Philadelphia (his home town and location for almost all of his films) citizens deal with the supposed invasion. In most films of this type you would have the standard riots at the bus station and people running over everyone to get the hell out of town. Night presents us a scenario where people are simply confused and held at a standstill trying to figure out what the best move would be to make to get them to safety. I find this to be a more realistic point of view that probably has no place amidst rampaging green giants and pandas who know kung-fu.

However, I find the idea that movies should be centered within the particular season a ludicrous assumption. Maybe the film would be better suited for the fall, but a good movie is a good movie no matter when you see it. And The Happening is a good film though by the end it seems to be trying really hard not to be.

One of my problems with the film is that much like the aliens in Signs, the nature attack in The Happening is essentially a macguffin. Night really tries to throw his focus more towards the struggling relationship between Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel). Both actors are more than up to the task and give very unconventional performances something Night is good at getting out of actors. I still think that some of Bruce Willis’s best work has been in The Sixth Sense and the criminally underrated Unbreakable.

Still, I think more insight into the problems of the relationship early on would have helped us feel more in touch with them at the end of the film where they have to man up and set things right since they have a little girl to take care of as well now, Jess, played by a very brave little actress, Ashlyn Sanchez.

The nature attack is handled better at the beginning of the film where we don’t know as much about what’s going on. One of the effects that the toxins in the air have on people is that it makes them kill themselves. Night made this his first R rated film so he could be a little more descriptive with the suicides I would assume. At first, this is quite effective such as the man literally walking into the lion’s den at a zoo. But after awhile I felt Night was having more fun with these deaths than I was or at the very least, was comfortable with.

The film also has a lot of nicely placed unconventional humor, another M. Night trademark. I’ve always kind of enjoyed my comedy more subtle, and throwing it in the middle of a potential apocalypse is as subtle as you can get. Scenes such as one character’s love of hot dogs and Alma’s reaction to her mood ring reading are thrown in effectively amidst all of the chaos. Wahlberg’s facial expression when one woman accuses him of wanting to murder her in her sleep might be the best reaction shot we’ll see this year.

Enough works to make this a good film, and the terror and suspense that Night creates in the first hour of the film with silence and awe from our spectators is expertly handled. I never realized a filmmaker could get so much tension out of a scene with people simply standing around, but Night proved me wrong with Signs and he proved me wrong again with this film. I can even state that the mere wind through the trees as I left the theater sent a chill down my spine, and I can’t ignore the movie’s effectiveness after that.

I’m a little less impressed with the final third of the film, but I was happy he didn’t turn this into a stage for an environmental message. We simply get an interview with a top ranked scientist on the tube who simply states that there is no way to know the power that nature yields. There is even still speculation brought on by the newscaster of whether or not the government was still somehow involved due to the isolation of the incident.

A film’s box office has never swayed me either way, and even if this film does make a ton of money, I’m sure a lot of critics (But they have no ego of course) will find something else to bitch at the man about. Whether he caused this fire assault at himself or is merely a victim looking in, I guess I really don’t care. What I do like is that he still came out and made a good film in a summer that as so far been rather disappointing, as most summer movie seasons end up being. If I can keep getting well thought out genre storytelling like this, then I’ll keep watching.


Sam Loomis

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