B-D Review: Another Look at ‘The Happening’

OUCH. B-D stringer The Undead Comic has chimed in with his review of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which is now in theaters everywhere. He’s a huge fan of Shyamalan and still he completely despised his latest creation – read on for his negative review and don’t forget to write your own review here! When a series of unusual events begins to draw the attention of the world’s population, high school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and their family go on the run. Their attempt to avoid becoming victims of these bizarre occurrences develops into a desperate fight for survival as an apocalyptic crisis threatens humanity.
Wha’ happen? I scarcely know where to start. As someone who’s enjoyed every single one of M. Night Shyamalans films, even the deeply flawed LADY IN THE WATER, I was left absolutely dumbfounded at my screening of THE HAPPENING. There is so much wrong with this film that I literally can’t imagine a way to save it short of a complete rewrite. It is by far the worst film I’ve seen this year. And I think the other fifty or sixty critics at my screening would generally agree. That’s what really left me dumb founded. I can’t recall another film that seemed to generate such a unified response among such a diverse group of people. We all seemed to hate this movie.

The film opens in New Yorks famed Central Park where a mysterious force causes mass suicide. This soon happens across the Northeast in other parks and large public gathering places. While panic grips the US a makeshift family attempts to escape to unaffected areas only to be cornered at the height of the crisis while the government tries to work out exactly who or what is to blame.

So why are people killing themselves? I will forgo the temptation to suggest that perhaps they were all forced to sit through this film. I will also forgo the temptation to reveal the cause since it is the only moderately interesting aspect of this film. Suffice to say THE HAPPENING falls neatly into a reasonably well defined sub genre of horror that actually contains some really fine films. Of course I can’t tell you what they are without committing the unpardonable sin of movie critics- revealing the movies big secret which also means I can’t compare this film to any of its betters. It’s the only neat trick Shyamalan manages to pull off.

But I can criticize everything else. The writing in this film is reminiscent of the last three Star Wars films, especially the dialogue. Characters talk when they should show us things. Remember the nonsensical explanation that Qui-Gon Jinn gave about the force in STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE?

Well the mildly interesting explanation for the force that affects people in THE HAPPENING works even less well since Shyamalan tries to root it in the scientific world rather than the metaphysical or magical. Imagine if Qui-Gon Jin interrupted a battle sequence to explain why we can hear the explosions in space and you get the idea of why Shyamalans explanation hurts rather than helps. Rooted in the “real” world what could have been emotionally compelling and mysterious is instead rendered into clunky cinematic propaganda that is, by the way, repeated endlessly and hammered at by the plot. THE HAPPENING even utilizes its non-revelation in two separate end scenes that practically dare the viewer to invest any emotion at all into the film’s point which made me wonder if Al Gore was poking Shyamalan repeatedly with a sharpened stick during the writing. The other side senses a deeply cynical and or depressed Shyamalan who’d rather play around with the tools of cinema oblivious of the audience that has to sit and watch him show off. In this case it’s like watching Han Solo leave Tatooine if he decided to ditch Obi Wan and Luke after taking their money. In that sense Shyamalan shows himself to be little different than George Lucas.

By the way the explanation isn’t global warming.

And the human dialogue? The human conversation in this film seems lifted out of some screenplay textbook and abounds in non-sequiturs, clichés and unnecessary distractions. Characters stare blankly into the air instead of making eye contact. Is it out of embarrassment at their inability to breathe life into their cardboard motivations and relationships? Does it surprise us to find out that Elliot and Alma are having marriage trouble? Does it surprise us when the film introduces quirky characters who are only there to be quirky and provide endless exposition? After the first fifteen minutes I doubt you’ll be surprised by anything these characters say or do because none of it will seem important.

And the most unforgivable aspect of the writing? You literally don’t know when to laugh, and when to take THE HAPPENING seriously. The script, the pacing, the dialogue- everything related to the writing of this story is all over the map. Unlike SIGNS which knew when to pepper its tension with laughs THE HAPPENING tries to settle for laughs after failing to produce any tension at all.

And with such rotten dialogue who can blame the actors right? Well with the exceptions of Betty Buckley, who has a marvelous turn as a crazy old biddy, and a solid performance by John Leguizamo the cast in this film runs the gamut of awful with some actors making me wonder if they’ve ever acted before and some making me wish they’d never act again, or at least read the script before they do. Mark Wahlberg is astoundingly bad. Never once did I believe he was a high school graduate much less a high school science teacher. And as another critic at our screening said, “Zooey Deschanel looks like someone hit her in the head with a board just before every shot.” Wide-eyed enough to look like she’s auditioning for the live action remake of Bambi (or at least Bambi does Boston) her character seems to range somewhere between ditzy and stoned. At her worst she seems like she might burst out into laughter at any moment which brings up the fact that this is supposed to be a horror movie.

Scares? After all this is M. Night’s first R rated film. THE HAPPENING can’t even take advantage of the opportunities afforded by his supposedly bold move. Violence in this film is so nonchalant that it threatens to provoke laughter if anything but THE HAPPENING can’t even muster that. In one scene a man shoots himself in the street, the gun is then picked up and used by someone else, and someone else. It’s a good idea but filmed from the POV of their feet for no reason other than to push the old saw that what is left unseen is often more scary or effective than what is seen. It doesn’t work here at all playing instead as if Shyamalan was too timid to point his camera in the same direction that news crews do everyday. In fact the whole thing is so tame it could have been the beginning of an episode of C.S.I.
When violence is on display it seems perfunctory and gross and simply there to reinforce something the movie has already hammered home ad nauseum- people are killing themselves. Of course it would help if at least some of the effects worked. The blood is CGI, the wounds people have are too often obviously CGI. It’s a testament to the power of bad filmmaking that a movie could have a body count this high and never raise a viewers heart rate. At one point, as seen in the films trailers, no spoilers here, a man breaks into a lion cage. The end result is not only predictable but so improbably presented in terms of special effects and performance that it becomes a metaphor for just how badly made this movie is. It’s if Shyamalan stepped into the lion cage of the R rated film and got mauled by his own creative stumbling around, and after being mauled simply kept going oblivious to how awful a situation he’d gotten himself in.

The Happening won’t kill M Night Shyamalan career. In fact I’m guessing his level of clout is the only reason that this was screened for critics in the first place. A less successful director would have seen this effort buried deep in January by the studio. Now the question is whether or not he’ll take some much needed criticism to heart. Heart is after all what has made his movies so great. Heart is what makes THE SIXTH SENSE so watchable many viewing later. SIGNS awful ending is forgivable precisely because it says something that seems heartfelt and trustworthy about the way a seemingly threatening universe really works. And THE VILLAGE is truly terrifying not because the outside world is so threatening but because it offers the lesson that mans efforts to build human community are so often corrupted by unresolved evil within. THE HAPPENING? It is as without heart as it is without craft, without resonance and without hope of a box office future beyond it’s first weekend.

1/10