There’s been an event. It will be targeting large populations today, but it will target smaller and smaller crowds from here on out, as the director loses more and more credibility with his audiences. Yes, you guessed it, it’s M Night Shyamalan’s latest train wreck of a movie, The Happening.
I’ll try not to give you any spoilers, but it’s difficult with M Night, because with him, the movie’s real hook is always the thing to be spoiled. This film strikes me as a rip off of the War of the Worlds concept, with a similarly inhumane premise. As much as I disliked Speilberg’s take on War of the Worlds, it was a much better film in many ways: Better dialogue. Better acting. More genuine pathos (which is saying a lot!). Greater credibility. Far less silliness / fakey gruesomeness. Less resemblance to a commercial for allergy medicine.
I get the impression that M Night wants to prove he can do “dark” films. Umm, okay. So he did. It happened. Dark and silly. I was laughing at all the wrong moments. And especially at the movie’s sermon, delivered via a commentator on a television screen.
What really struck me is how desperately the movie wants to evoke pathos, and at the same time, how incapable it is of doing so. We witness the first on-screen act of violence before any character relationships have been established. Then we have a series of scenes in which characters curse (the film ends with a curse too). Curses are an easy substitute for evoking feeling. Then there’s the shot of bodies falling from a tall building. For one thing, the bodies look like rag dolls as they flimsily descend. But more importantly, the director has taken another shortcut to real drama by dragging out the audience’s emotional baggage from 9/11. Then there’s the use of violin music to tell us how to feel. At times, characters speak out their subtext; in one scene, a character says to her husband, in the company of friends, something to this effect: “You know how I feel about revealing my inner life in public!” A couple of moments of self-revelation are trotted out in such a predictable fashion that you just wish the whole scene had been edited out. Then there’s the gratuitous on-screen gore, which actually causes the audience to stiffen, not emote. Finally, the movie tries to help us get inside the feelings of the characters with — are you ready for this? — a mood ring. Not kidding.
The dialogue is abysmal at times. In one scene, a car pulls into the frame behind a couple. Then wife says to husband, “Here’s a car.” In another scene, when the same couple and a young girl are clearly in peril, but caring for some people who are wounded, the wife says to husband: “We have to run. We have to save the girl.” This sort of stuff should be left on the writer’s beat sheet. How did it end up as a line of dialogue?
I also noticed that, a la There Will Be Blood, the most psychotic and anti-social character is also the most religious character in the movie. She wears a cross, has an image of Jesus on the wall in her bedroom, and paces in her garden saying the Our Father in a trance-like way.
The real problem with the plot is that humans have nothing meaningful to do but freak out, run, hide and panic (oh, yeah, and formulate bizarre explanations for what is happening). In this way it resembles War of the Worlds. Things happen to people. It’s all just happening. “There are forces at work beyond our understanding,” says Wahlberg’s character. We don’t have actors on the stage of life, with meaningful choices; we merely have cogs in Fortune’s wheel. The very heart of drama — human freedom, dilemma, moments of deliberation and decision — are only present in a few scenes. I’ll grant that one crucial scene does exhibit drama… but it was late in the movie, and I had stopped attempting to care about the characters at least thirty minutes earlier. For the most part, this film is tragedy without the choices. Which reduces things, in this case, to a gory, wooden melodrama which is also quite preachy. (I won’t say how, as that would involve a spoiler). Without revealing too much, I’ll summarize the essential inhumanity of the movie by saying that the most interesting character in this film, as in War of the Worlds, appears to be a non-human entity. The story presents a very impoverished anthropology vis-a-vis the rest of the created world.
Can this be Happening? People greenlight movies like this? And how did I end up going to the theater to watch such a thing? Clearly, there are forces at work beyond our understanding.
My advice? Don’t waste your theater-going dollars on this one. It’s not a big-screen spectacle anyway. Maybe catch it on DVD if curiosity gets the better of you. But don’t blame yourself. Remember, it just happened to you.