Well, the critics were right. For a movie called The Happening, not very much happens at all.
I went to see The Happening last night. Usually, I love M. Night Shyamalan's films. The Sixth Sense? Loved it. Unbreakable? Clever. Signs? Creeped the hell out of me. I even loved The Village and Lady in the Water (makes me cry like a baby every time I see it) which almost nobody else seems to like. When I started hearing poor reviews for The Happening, I took them with a grain of salt, and I assured myself it would still be something that I would enjoy. S even said she thought I'd like it. So, off I went to to theater, catching it on its last night of theatrical release. I assumed I'd be the only person in the theater, but there ended up being about a dozen of us. I settled in with an open mind, ready to prove the critics wrong, at least from my point of view...
***SPOILER ALERT - I can't rant about this movie without giving it away, so if you don't want to know anything about this snoozer of a movie, don't read any further!!***
Could Shyamalan have made a worst movie? I know he goes for minimalism in his films, but this time he took it to a sleep-inducing art form. With the film clocking in at 91 minutes, by about 45-50 minutes in, I found myself looking at my watch, wondering how much longer I had to endure before the credits. I contemplated checking my email. I thought about texting my sister. I kept telling myself, "Self, don't leave the theater. It has to get better." I found myself sitting in the parking lot afterwards thinking, "Self, you should have known better. It wasn't going to get better. And you just wasted $8.50 and 91 minutes of your life."
I can't stress this enough, nothing at all happens in this movie.
Unless you count the sensationalistic ways that Shyamalan found for people to kill themselves. Because this is the focal point of the movie. There has been some sort of toxin released into the air that first makes you start talking incoherently, then you stop moving, then you start moving again, but erratically this time, then you look around and find the most over-the-top, "creative," asinine way in which to kill yourself. Because that is what the toxin does; it unbalances the chemicals in your brain that cause self-preservation, so that you then want to kill yourself. But it was the way people killed themselves that I found ridiculous. Shyamalan has some people find boring ways in which to kill themselves early on in the film, like shooting themselves in the head or walking off the top of a building; effective, but dull. Shooting yourself? Seen it! Walking off a building? Seen that, too! No, Shyamalan wants to give us new ideas about suicide. Something shocking! Something beyond imaging! The toxin apparently can make you want to bludgeon your head against a wall, take three steps to the left and then slam it through a window (gasp!); or walk into a lion cage at the zoo and taunt the lions until they rip your arms off (look away!); or start an industrial size lawn mower and lay down on the grass to let it drive over you (the horror!); or hang yourself from trees with garden hoses (Waitaminit! Hanging yourself isn't shocking... but wait! Good Lord! It's with garden hoses...? NOT GARDEN HOSES! Oh, the humanity!). Apparently the toxin also inhibits any form of pain from reaching the brain, as no one makes a sound as they are being mauled by lions or chopped up with a mower; to them, it's all in a day (or they're just thankful that their part in the movie is finally over with).
This is one of the areas that I feel Shyamalan failed miserably with this film. I kept thinking it was odd that one of the promotional tools used for the movie was advertising that it was his first R-rated film. I think he set out with a goal to make an R-rated film, and decided that the best way to do this was to come up with the most outrageous ways for people to kill themselves; scenes that have never been shown in theaters before (remember, it has to be SHOCKING!). In an interview I saw with Shyamalan, he says something about wanting to push the envelope over and over again, never letting the audience recover from the last shock before he throws the next one at them. I use the word sensationalistic again, because that is all it was. The suicide scenes mentioned above did happen in the movie, but they were so ridiculous and over-the-top that I didn't find them shocking in the slightest, just absurd.
Another point that I found odd in the film was the evacuation of New York City. I've been to New York City. There's a lot of people about the place. I would tend to think that if the city was evacuated due to a possible terrorist attack, there would probably be a generally high level of panic. Cut to the train station right after everyone is told to evacuate the city. Are there mad rushes to the trains, people clambering over each other to get out of the city and to safety? Hell no! It's all peaceful and orderly and it looks like any other Tuesday, people coming and going about their daily business. Mark Wahlberg's character and his wife even have time for a chat about how she doesn't like to show her emotional side to people. Remember folks, there's a toxin in the air that will make you kill yourself! Best to get moving along and work out your emotional idiosyncrasies on the train. Of course, the toxin could have gotten to them and they could be just trying to bore themselves to death. That type of suicide hasn't been seen on the big screen before.
Other parts were laughable. The scene when everyone on the train decides to have a bit of lunch after they find out they can't get any farther on the train? What the hell? We could all die at any moment. Better get that last meal in! Suddenly, somebody figures out that if they stay in one spot for too long, they could die too! (He probably realized he didn't have enough money to cover his lunch.) Everybody jumps up and decides to leave at once in a very Keystone Cops reminiscent scene of running about, jumping into randoms cars and speeding off into the distance. Everyone but our main characters, that is. Unfortunately (conveniently), there isn't room in any other cars or people won't give them a ride (never mind all the other random people jumping into cars that obviously aren't theirs - remember, these are a bunch of people who had just been on a train. I don't think the little backwater town they stopped in had a Budget Rent-a-Car handy). No no, they had to be left behind in order for the plot to move forward. If they got to leave, what would Shyamalan have been able to film then? Paint drying? Would probably have been just as thrill-a-minute.
The acting/writing/script/directing was another failure. I found myself wondering on more than one occasion whether or not the actors had actually read the script or rehearsed their lines before Shyamalan turned his cameras on them for the first time. Everyone seemed to wander about with a vague expression of bewilderment on their faces; they were all probably wondering how they got roped into starring in such a mess of a movie.
And what the hell was the point of the crazy lady at the end? Maybe Shyamalan just didn't think he'd added enough random crap into the movie yet, now we needed a crazy lady who lives off the land. Spooky...!
Now for the bestest part of the whole movie. The cause for the toxin? A terrorist attack? Government conspiracy? Something more sinister? Nope.
Trees and plants...
Yep, trees and plants. And there is no other explanation, because sometimes nature just does something that can't be explained by science.
At the end of the film, a scientist explains that the toxin released into the air by the trees is akin to red tide, but instead of being in the water and attacking fish, it was in the air and attacked people (his scientific explanation). The toxin only seems to affect human beings as well, because you never see a dog bludgeoning its head on a fire hydrant or birds flying into the cat cages in pet stores or squirrels sticking their heads into gas stoves. Nope, the trees are just pissed with humans. And apparently, trees and plants can create focused wind to control the release of their toxin. And only the trees in one localized area seem to be pissed with humanity, because it only happens in the northeast corner of the country; or it could simply be because Shyamalan has this weird quirk about making sure most of the action in all his films is located in Pennsylvania.
I also wonder if this wasn't Shyamalan's rather oblique attempt at a "Green" film; his way of being didactic about the whole thing. We'd better start being nicer to the trees, or they're gonna get us!!
Needless to say, I could go on and on with my grievances with this film. Personally, I'd just like to get my 91 minutes and $8.50 back, thank you very much. Will I go see Shyamalan's next film? You bet. I just hope that maybe he has enough sense to get someone else in to edit and produce his next film. I think he may have stretched the limit of his own imagination at this point, and may need some guidance and reminders on how to shock the audience without having to be SHOCKING!