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Non-Review Review: The Happening

Something’s happening… And it’s happening all over the East Coast… And it’s just happening to people without a reason… And… oh, that’s what’s happening? What the hell was M. Night Shyamalan smoking? Probably some killer grass.

It's a car crash of a movie...

Note: This review contains spoilers. But I’ll flag them beforehand. Still – you have been warned. Oh, and – if you’re looking for a recommendation – the only appeal of the film is in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. It’s the movie that Lesbian Vampire Killers wishes it were.

M. Night Shymalan is a very weird man. It’s interesting to look at his filmography and wonder how he’ll be viewed in hindsight. On one hand he gave us the ‘amazing if you watch it once, only above average afterwards’ Sixth Sense and the criminally underestimated Unbreakable. The Village was a disappointment, but certainly a lot better than than the cinematic self-pleasuring that was The Lady in the Water. And then there was The Happening.

Horror films rely on a lot of tropes. Arguably the biggest one is stupid protagonists. But The Happening features some of the biggest idiots I have ever seen on the big screen. The plot is but a catalog of stupid decision after stupid decision. You never stay in the house with a paranoid old lady who thinks you are trying to kill her. When a loon in a boarded-up house tells you to get off his porch, you don’t try to kick his door in. When crazy stuff starts happening – there’s that word again – you either move away and flee (smart idea) or you try to stop it (dumb but noble), you don’t sit around and have a long discussion while it’s happening. Or when you discover a house filled entirely with fake things, but are surprised because you were too dumb to read the “Model House” sign you passed on the way in. The audience doesn’t really feel any sympathy or investment, because well… let’s face it, these people are too dumb to live.

There are moments where you sense that Shyamalan might be in the joke, offering the film as a parody of his own film-making style – all style and flash that thats stupid ideas far too seriously. The problem is that his cast don’t seem to realise it. Mark Wahlberg is in ernest ‘hero’ mode throughout, even when attempting to bring levity. If the movie plays it’s actual jokes too seriously, it doesn’t bode particularly well for the unintentional comedy.

I will concede that the movie has quite a bit of potential. Take the premise, for example. Bunches of people randomly doing insane things, causing society to collapse. That’s a fascinating concept. Shyamalan attempts to channel Hitchcock when presenting this absurd turn of events and – despite the fact he can’t compare to the master – he succeeds until he reveals the reason for this behaviour. The movie also falls apart because it doesn’t really bother to offer us any real sense of societal collapse, which would be the truly horrific impact of the events portrayed on screen. Instead we are treated to the cliche of ‘media reporting on the fall of society’, which is a trope that even the inventor, George A. Romero has moved on from – compare his recent Diary of Dead to this tame effort. We are informed of goings on by conveniently placed radios and awkward televised inserts rather than actually being shown the impact of what is happening.

Despite the weaknesses of the writing and the basic premise, Shyamalan is good with images. Admittedly not as good as we thought he was or as he clearly thinks he is, but he can land a killing blow from time to times. Take the opening sequence with the builders or the hanging trees of Princeton, with carefully and meticulously arranged ladders, or the one-by-one suicide sequences. Those are chilling and effective. On the other hand, he tends to overstretch himself, with other sequences prone to look more ridiculous than terrifying – a sequence with a lawnmower, for example, or a novel approach to feeding zoo animals – that tend to make the movie look like the suicidal individuals are competing against each other for most creative way of taking their own lives. This doesn’t detract from the strength of the images that work, but it just draws attention to how those thirty-odd seconds of footage are the only bits of the hour-and-a-half film which come together as they should. If it sounds like watching the movie is a waste of time, it is.

The characters, as in most of Shyamalan’s films, are just cyphers. Unfortunately, there’s a rather disturbing subtext underpinning his central character arc, which seems to suggest a woman can only become a faithful wife by forming a conventional family unit. It certainly doesn’t help that what eventually overcomes this disaster might as well be ‘the power of love’. There’s a significant conservative message underlining the whole film, whcih feels somewhat awkward – this is compounded by the fact that there is no subtlety in the production at all. In fact, a giant sign that the cast marches past labelled “You deserve this” is the most subtle moment of the film.

Now on to the twist, which is located in the middle of the film – rather than the end, as Shyamalan seems to like. You have been warned. it you want to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and go in blind, stop reading now. If you want to go in expecting to laugh your ass off at the crazy turns the film takes, look away now. The revelation itself is hilarious in the context of the film – it almost sounds credible when stated here. Anyway, if you aren’t going to watch the movie, or have watched the movie, or want to go in well aware of the crap the film is going to throw your way, read on ahead.

I’m reluctant to describe a film plot as inherently stupid. I don’t doubt that there is a perfect ‘killer plant’ movie waiting to be made – my money’s on an adaptation of Day of the Triffids in the next decade or so. However, some ideas are so far out there that they really should only be attempted by the most talented of film-makers, able to balance ridiculousness with the emotional impact that good cinema can have. Take any Pixar film as an example – in anything but the most skilled hands, Up would be incredibly difficult to watch. If you’ve read this far, you can probably gather than M. Night Shyamalan is not the most skilled hands.

In a way, the idea of killer ecology was probably meant as another stylistic homage to Alfred Hitchcock, who could make something as banal as The Birds work. However, as any reasonably competent scientest will tell you (ie anyone not involved with the production of this particular film), birds are not in fact plants. Birds move. They can chase, they can stalk and they can fly. Plants can… grow. Okay, smaller plants can blow in the wind, but they aren’t the most menacing thing in all of creation. However, the movie craptastically treats every maple tree as if it were a serial killer, offering the dynamic angles you’d expect and the eerie silence of a predator stalking. It’s photographed as if there were something in the shadows. Except there’s just the grass. In the daylight. This style of production is adopted with a straight face by all involved, as the cast decide it’s a good idea to literally outrun the wind.

There are other problems inherent in the film’s logic too, even if we accept that plants are capable of a desire to kill and can produce neuro-toxins that are highly-specialised aerial forms of LSD. The outbreaks begin in the city. This implies that a tree somewhere in Central Park – which has been loved and cared for and treated by the staff – spontaneously decided it would be a good idea to wipe out humanity and was able – with its little tree co-conspirators – to wipe out the entire city. How they hell to the trees communicate efficently enough to wipe out entire cities, particularly since they are the areas where they are least dense? And how come the trees have a harder time killing people in the wide open contryside where they are at their densest? That’s like a single platoon taking control of Baghdad while the entire army are having difficulty getting their cars started.

Not withstanding that, there’s the rather awkward question of how intelligent the trees are and why on earth they stopped with the East Coast? Surely, far from convincing humanity to adopt a more balance ecological approach, the American government would already be on the line to those guys stripmining the Amazon basin. After all, if a tree had the chance, it would kill you and everyone you cared about! The trees are obviously smart enough to watch the news – I bet Paris really thanks that talking head jerk who said we need another example to prove the trees are serious – so why the hell did they just stop? Did they figure out wiping out New Jersey was enough work for one day, and just give up to go home to their wives and sapplings?

And how the hell can every plant everywhere produce the exact same toxin? Did they have top trees working on it? Top… trees? That’s almost as disturbing as the fact that once the biologists in the film – and there’s a lot of them – realise what’s happening, they mostly seem to just passively shrug their shoulders and come out with passive nonsense like “it’s an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it”. Jeez, somebody clearly just wants a half-day. I get that this is – apparently – Shyamalan’s theology shining through (he’s always been a fan of mysticism and the notion that things tend to sort themselves out and there are forces at work we can’t understand and all that), but that doesn’t excuse the terrible writing. What kind scientist gives up and scratches his head, particularly after such a catastrophic incident? I was expecting a scene of two guys at a lab staring at a leaf and shrugging their shoulders going, “I dunno”. There’s been a case made that The Happening is the biggest Intelligent Design movie ever made, and I’m inclined to believe it – and not just because the science of the plants’ schemes conveniently sidesteps the laws of evolution (but, remember kids, “it’s just a theory”).

The movie has an understandable problem with suspense – especially given that the oxygen the main characters are breathing is produced by the plants trying to murder them. Particularly when they stray out into the fields, surrounded by plants, yet never really get attacked by them. There is tension when prey is surrounded, but that tends to get lost when the prey is actually idly sauntering through the predator.

The film is, in short, a bad joke. It’s hard to avoid feeling like this isn’t in some small way an act of vengeance not upon a materially-obsessed and non-eco-friendly society, but rather on the audience that appears to have abandoned Shyamalan.

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