Monday, December 08, 2008

The Happening

Where did M. Knight Shyamalan go? What happened to the director who made The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002)? In The Village Shyamalan seemed to wander, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne leading him astray. In The Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) he seems completely to have lost his senses.

The Happening centers on an at first unexplainable phenomenon that begins in Central Park when people suddenly begin killing themselves—jumping off buildings, stabbing themselves with knitting needles, shooting themselves, you name it. The phenomenon spreads throughout the Northeastern states, and at first the assumption is that the phenomenon is the result of a terrorist attack using toxic gas. Through the conjectures of high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and other characters, it soon seems likely that the disaster is the result of toxins produced by vegetation, trees, and bushes, defending themselves against the threat they feel from human kind.

The solution of Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) is to run away. Everyone runs away, as if they have all recently seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and taken to heart its injunction to "run away." They fall in with a group of people fleeing from the cities and small towns and villages where the toxin has done its work, and gradually they are picked off, one by one, or should I say, they pick themselves off, since the toxin makes everyone it afflicts want to commit suicide immediately.

Elliot and Alma are suffering a crisis in their marriage, though neither of them wants to talk about it. She has gone so far as to have dessert with a colleague in her office, without her husband's knowledge, for which she feels guilt. Of course, in the process of running away from the vegetation-produced toxins, they discover they love one another after all. (Just as Mel Gibson in Signs recovers his faith after he saves his son from a menacing alien).

Nothing in this film makes sense. Wahlberg and Deschanel don't make sense. Neither of their roles seems well developed, and it's difficult to believe they're actually married. They relate to each other as if they're both heavily medicated.

The scenes in which people kill themselves are necessary to the story but still unpleasant. Especially unnecessary and gratuitous, I thought, was a scene in which two young boys, teenagers, are skilled by shotgun blasts fired from within a house they are trying to enter. This scene is followed soon after by another set in the mid-west showing survivalist types—possibly Aryan nation members—loading their guns in preparation for the coming apocalypse. In other scenes we see panic and mayhem and numerous examples of people declining to help each other in a moment of peril. Late in the film, Elliot and Emma run across an apparently abandoned farm house where they discover an old woman living alone. She invites them in, offers them dinner and a place to sleep, and at first they think they've found a haven, though soon they learn otherwise. I suppose the point is that humankind is especially brutal and that when the restraining threads of civilization are cut, savage behavior breaks out.

The famous Shyamalan motifs are here. Every time the wind blows and the bushes and trees sway menacingly, we know the toxin is about to strike. There are the expected color motifs too (mainly green ones). There is the now almost obligatory theme of a family that finds the importance of love and togetherness in a moment of crisis. There is a scene late in the film in which Wahlberg and Zooey are hiding from the toxins in separate buildings on the old woman's farm (she has conveniently killed herself). They communicate their love to each other through a pipe hidden underground, a relic of the underground railroad days, and this leads them to leave their hiding places and to run outside and embrace for a final moment of togetherness before they die—you can almost hear the strains of the Beatles singing "Love, Love, Love" in the background. You can also envision a Lady Clairol hair product commercial.

There is, of course, a Gaia message here. Mess around with Mother Earth, and she'll whack you. But Shyamalan develops this message in such a hackneyed, half-wit manner that calls logic and common sense constantly into question, with poorly developed characters and situations, with special effects that involve swaying branches and obvious dummies being thrown from rooftops that are supposed to represent people leaping to their deaths, that it's simply not possible to take this film seriously on any grounds—as entertainment, as social message, as environmental warning.

Most of all it's not possible to take it seriously as a film. There's a failure of imagination here, and The Happening comes across more as a high school film project than as a production by the director of The Sixth Sense.

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