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the happening

The Happening
M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Robert Bailey Jr.

Michael Olson

June 20, 2008


Thriller films are such a fascinating and yet formidable genre of movies. It is also a genre that can easily be screwed up with the slightest of touch. Over analyzing, I believe is one of the key reasons why thriller/horror films may fail in the final product. Directors like Hitchcock, Wise, and Kubrick were fantastic at what they did, because they went after the one thing that scared the crap out of most everyone, your sense of reasoning. M. Night Shyamalan has used this same technique to an extent (more so in films like Sixth Sense, Signs, and the Village). In his most recent film, The Happening, he has finally dropped the twist ending (which I thought was just a fluke that he didn't use it in Lady in the Water), but has nearly missed the mark on creating a decent thriller film.

The film doesn't waste any time explaining; there is something really weird going on and human beings are ending their lives without irresoluteness. The Mid-Atlantic states are experiencing this bizarre incident where the popular thought of terrorism is quickly adapted as the reason. We move to our protagonist, a Philadelphia high school science teacher named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who explains a foreshadowing quote by Einstein to his class; the quote states that if bees are to die off, man will follow within a few years. At the time of day Elliot and his entire class are unaware of the events that first hit New York City. The news spreads quickly and there is a mandatory city evacuation. Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel) flee with Elliot's friend from his job, the math teacher, Julian (John Leguizamo) and his eight-year-old daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They depart by way of train. They make it a few hours out of the city until the train stops at a remote station in western Pennsylvania. The conductor comes out to announce that the train services have discontinued because they have lost contact with the station agent. The people on the train set out on foot for a local diner. While in the diner the crowd finds out how dire the current situation is and hightail it out of there. The four individuals are in desperation like everyone else to quickly leave the area. Julian finds it more important to locate his wife who was supposed to meet them at the train station. He takes off with another group and leaves his daughter in the care of Elliot and Alma. Julian heads off to where he heard his wife was last located and the other three vacate the area with some locals. Moving along, the story develops when Elliot, Alma, Jess, and the two locals come to a fork in the road where they meet other individuals on the opposite ends of the forked roads. All of them state that there is nothing but dead bodies on the roads behind them. Bewilder in disbelief, Elliot attempts to figure out what is causing this grotesque invisible apocalyptic event to mankind. The film continues on with several of the same bizarre deaths and an ending that is preach-ier than a room full of evangelical leaders.

Besides Unbreakable I have never been a huge fan of M. Night's work. That's not saying he's not a decent director, I personally just don't care for his work. It took him four films (not including the comedy with Rosie O'Donnell, Wide Awake, and I unfortunately have not seen his first film, Praying with Anger) to find out that maybe the twist ending isn't as great to use every single time. His sophomore attempt to create a non-twist film has unfortunately missed the target of possibly being an estimable film. I must say I did enjoy this movie a whole lot more than Lady in the Water (if that is saying anything). A few things that bugged me about this film was the overly cookie cutter-ish dialogue, it almost felt like the film would have done better if it was a campy sci-fi flick from the 50's (MST3K anyone?). On top of the mediocre dialogue we have Mark Wahlberg who really seems out of place in this film. He plays the tough angry guy who likes to yell his emotions in films, not a hip science teacher with a loving husband attitude. Zooey Deschanel, who is someone I absolutely love seeing in film. She is not amazing in this film, but I wouldn't blame her acting on her bland character, though another finger is pointing at the dialogue for this. Strangely enough, I actually enjoyed John Leguizamo in this film. As small as his part was in this film I found him more believable as a teacher and a family man than Wahlberg. For the most part I thought this idea of something unknown but very common place killing off people was pretty interesting. I also didn't mind the idea of the preachy undertone of the film, even though I don't think it's gonna make anyone go clean up a local park or even pick up that soda can you just tossed on the ground… I saw you! Don't think I didn't notice it, you bastard! I'm more perplexed to see Shyamalan's next film since this seems to be a step up in the right direction; maybe by his third or forth 'non-twist' film he will have actually created a decent film close to the likes of Coen or Scorsese (*disgruntled look from the reader*). Ok, ok… [Ridley] Scott or Emmerich (*more satisfied look from the reader*).

To sum up, I personally can't recommend this film. It's over hyped, giant, red letter, R rating was too much of a sell out for M. Night. Lots of people will see this just for that and a lot more will see it just because they like M. Night Shyamalan. Don't get fooled into watching it; it's just another claudicate thriller.


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the happening

The Happening
M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Robert Bailey Jr.

Joanne Ross

June 23, 2008


If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”
                                                                        Attributed to Albert Einstein

With the release of the The Happening, director M. Night Shayamalan has returned to terra cognito after his critical misstep with the 2006 film, The Lady in the Water. Sci-Fi and horror are genres he knows well.  And yet, . . .

I wish Night’s directorial return also heralded his return to top form. It doesn’t. While The Happening displays his signature visual style and skill for creating atmosphere, it doesn’t even come close to touching the artistic brilliance of his two masterpieces, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

The Happening is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds. In that film, nature runs amok in the form of inexplicable attacks by different species of birds on the sleepy California coast town of Bodega Bay. Nature moves in mysterious ways that mankind can never fully know, despite our scientific knowledge and arrogance. The audience never learns what causes the birds to revolt against the townspeople. It wasn’t necessary to know. Alfred Hitchcock reminded us of our place as humans in the world—as subordinates to Nature. He left us to ponder the “why” (what caused it?) and the “if” (will it happen again?) without giving us any answers. Audiences definitely looked at birds differently after seeing that movie.

Nature runs amok as well in The Happening.  But this time, some ecological “event” is attacking humans. And instead of targeting one town the event affects a broader area—the northeastern states.

With the title sequence, The Happening starts off a little shaky. The sequence consists of time-lapse photography footage of rolling clouds, accompanied by the eerie sound of wind blowing and a musical score by James Newton Howard. The sequence reminded me the kind used in those 1950s grade B sci-fi/horror movies produced in mass for the teen age market by American International, Warner Brothers, and Universal Studios. While it does set an appropriate tone of foreboding and doom, it comes across as very hokey and heavy-handed.

In Central Park, NY, people are mysteriously killing themselves.  The behavior quickly spreads through the rest of the New York metropolitan area, with people taking their lives in alarming and gruesome ways.

Meanwhile, science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is lecturing to his students about the recent disappearance of honey bees.  He questions his students about possible causes. They answer disease, pollution, global warming. But one student, the self-absorbed Jake (Robert Lenzi) has a different take on it. “An act of nature scientists don’t fully understand,” he says.

When word gets out at school about Central Park and the authorities’ belief that the east is under a terrorist attack involving air borne toxins, class is dismissed.  “Don’t forget your science projects for next week,” Elliot reminds his students. “What are the rules of scientific investigation?” he asks.  As one the students answer: “Identify variables, design of experiment, careful observation and measurement, and interpretation of experimental data.” Turns out this is information they will need.

Then Eliott, fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo), Eliott’s wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) hop a train along with a crowd of other people escaping the city. The attacks spread hitting Philadelphia and other cities. Later newscasts report that authorities now conclud that the attacks are not terrorist-related after all.  A nursery owner (Frank Collison) tells Elliott, “By the way, I think I know what’s causing this. It’s the plants. They can release chemicals.” Is it indeed the plants? Mankind as parasites?

Concerned as everyone is now about the major problems facing our planet—as the students themselves said, disease, global warming, pollution (we can also add overpopulation, destruction of the rainforests, and land rape due to an insatiable appetite for oil)—the subject of The Happening couldn’t be more apropos and tailor made for the movies.  Yet with all that potential for a brilliant film about eco-disaster and the demise of mankind, Shayamalan delivers a grade B product instead.

Shayamalan is a brilliant director—a look at his past movies proves it. His name alone on a picture will pull me into the theater and others as well. Not many directors have that kind of power—it’s usually the stars that have box-office muscle, not directors. I will ALWAYS see his movies, good or bad, that’s how much I admire him.  To his credit, he brings much of his skill and talent to The Happening—visual flair, editing for narration and effect, building suspense, creating atmosphere, use of sound and silence, and judicious use of special effects.  The one skill he possesses but doesn’t bring to the table is nuance and subtlety.

This is one of the most heavy-handed films I have ever seen.  All movies are not so much filmed but assembled or stitched together out of tons of footage. In The Happening, all the seams are showing. 

Where do I begin? Well, with the beginning, the title sequence I spoke of earlier. Then we have the classroom scene. How convenient is it to the story set-up that Eliott just happens to be lecturing about disappearing bees and other eco-environmental concerns?  Even worse, he reminds his students of their science project and the rules of scientific investigation. Finally, our two male leads are a science teacher and a math teacher. What is science all about? Investigation, experimentation, interpretation, and incidence: probability and statistics.  Eliott tells Julian: “I’m sure the probability of Princeton not being hit is good.” Julian concurs: “There’s a 62% chance it hasn’t been hit.”  These story elements and scenes taken together are just way too convenient and coincidental, and therefore from a directorial standpoint, also very helpful for the film’s exposition. What does the suspense in this film hinge on? Two things: one, identifying the cause (investigation) and two, possibility of survival (probability). It works for the director, but for us, the audience, oh brother! Why not just club us over the head with it?

On the acting front, we have a strong, capable bunch, including Betty Buckley as Mrs. Jones, an odd and paranoid woman living alone in the country isolated from human contact. Despite the talent on board, there isn’t anything really memorable about the performances. This is not a fault of the actors. The fault lies with the script and some really silly dialogue.

Through his film, Shayamalan warns us of the dangers of ignoring our responsibility to the environment. It is clearly a message movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is too didactic, too preachy, and that quality subtracts from what there is of the film’s artistry.

Shayamalan’s films can usually be read on more than one level, not just the literal but the symbolic as well. Up to a point, the same is true with The Happening. Now and then we get glimpses and hints pointing us toward a more metaphoric reading of what’s taking place--concepts of mass hysteria and the nocebo affect, biblical references, love and dissociation/alienation.  After all, could there be some significance in the fact that the attacks begin and spread rapidly in urban areas, but more slowly or not at all in rural ones? (and no, I am not talking about the population difference). The character of Mrs. Jones bears close watching. Her presence has a symbolic significance to the story. I can’t say too much more or I’ll be giving everything away.  Just something to think about.

The Happening is a watchable and even enjoyable film. You won’t be bored with it. But you don’t get Shayamalan at the top of his game. You don’t get the sense of Hitchcockian terror evident in The Birds in Shayamalan’s film because unlike Hitchcock, Shayamalan pieces together his materials in a heavy handed way, which is so uncharacteristic of him. As a cautionary tale, The Happening really makes us sit up and notice our relationship to the environment. You may even look at plants differently. All I can say is, if you’ve been neglecting your plants lately, start watering and talking to them—fast.*-JR