The Motion Picture:
'The Happening' (2008), Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Also Known As:
The first big nail in the career coffin of M. Night Shyamalan.
Featuring the Talented:
Mark Wahlberg as the overly earnest high school teacher, Zooey Deschanel as his consistently baffled wife, John Leguizamo as the mumbly, statistics-spouting best friend, and the wind. Lots and lots of wind.
What Is It?
One of the most ridiculed movies of the '00s and one of the more jaw-droppingly awful studio productions of recent years, filled with baffling directorial choices and performances by actors who look like deer trapped in the headlights. After the initial critical onslaught, Shyamalan went on a feverish interview tour, claiming "...it's a B-movie. This is the best B-movie you will ever see, that's it." But is it really a B-movie? Or is it just a bad film?
A strange toxin is sweeping the Northeastern United States, causing huge numbers of people to go into a trance, speak gibberish, and commit suicide. Is it a terrorist attack? The rapture? Well, we learn soon enough that Mother Nature has had enough of the human race, and so all of her plants have started unleashing this handy-dandy chemical in populated areas as a way of regaining some turf. Fine. It could work.
We follow Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), as they attempt to escape from nature's wrath (although their path only takes them deeper into nature, so you have every right to question the wisdom of their plan). Elliot is a science teacher who tries to teach his students about vanishing honeybees in between bouts of insulting his apathetic pupils by informing them that their good looks will eventually fade away. (A great educator, this one.) He also loves mood rings way too much for a grown man. Alma, in sharp contrast, doesn't have the burden of a personality. Their relationship is not doing well, but don't worry: being forced to take care of their deceased friend's (John Leguizamo, using only one corner of his mouth to speak) daughter while avoiding instant death through pure luck manages to repair the seams of their relationship.
Eventually, Alma and Elliot end up at the home of a crazy old religious woman (who thinks they're planning to steal her collection of creepy dolls and/or lemon drink), do absolutely nothing, and watch as the crisis resolves itself. The end.
Wait! There's more! In an epilogue torn straight from that mid-'90s classic 'Jumanji,' 'The Happening' starts to happen again, this time in France. Because nature hates French people just as much as it hates Americans. It's an equal-opportunity bigot.
Shocking Acts of Violence!
So we're dealing with a toxin that shuts off the self-preservation switches in your brain, making you immediately commit suicide. Despite the film's patchy, pseudo-scientific (dare I say B-movie-esque?) explanation for how this works, it never really makes any degree of sense. If plants found a way to turn off our need to stay alive, wouldn't we all just turn into lethargic couch potatoes who lie on the pavement in the open elements, not doing anything while we slowly starve to death? If we lost the desire to live, how exactly would we gain the impulse to make the effort to hang ourselves with a garden hose?
But whatever ... it's just an excuse for people to die by the hundreds. Some leap off buildings. Others stab themselves in the neck area. Some share a pistol that seems to have the unlimited ammo cheat turned on. Some lie down in front of lawn mowers. Some, as in the film's second-best moment, casually stroll into the lions' cage at the zoo and offer their appendages as a tasty morning snack. Even if you're fortunate enough to outrun the wind, you may still get a shotgun blast to the face because Mark Wahlberg's attempt to sing his way into a boarded-up home filled with nutcases has hideously backfired. If that last section sounds like the best scene in the film, that's because it is.
Sexual Deviancy and Mindless Perversity!
Deschanel's Alma ate tiramisu with a co-worker and the guilt rests on her shoulders like a ton of bricks. Wahlberg's Elliot considered buying a six dollar bottle of cough syrup from a pretty pharmacist even though he didn't have a cold. Can someone please tell these people how to have proper extramarital affairs? I mean, really -- come on!
Is There A Robot?
'The Happening' takes place firmly in the here and now, so there are no sentient mechanical lifeforms to be found. But who needs a villainous robot when you have plants? Plants that unleash an invisible, deadly chemical compound that forces our heroes to literally run from the wind? Much has been said about just how silly this is: how exactly can someone outrun the wind? Hideous infractions against the laws of How The World Actually Works aside, it's stunning how "uncinematic" this threat truly is. An invisible villain with vague intentions that operates on rules that feel inconsistent at best does not a good adversary make ... but if you can get over how plainly insulting it is and take a step back, the fact that anyone thought this was a good idea is mind-boggling, fascinating and, let's face it, pretty much hilarious.
Just How Cheap Does It Look?
Well, here's the biggest strike against 'The Happening' being a B-movie: it doesn't look cheap at all. It's a glossy studio production filled with professional lighting, convincing special effects, and sets that don't look like they were built in a high school gymnasium. That's where the quality ends, though. It's the action in the frame that counts, and what's in these frame is borderline incompetent, playing like an awkward parody of Shyamalan's established style. Suicidal construction workers comedically fly into frame. Menacing reaction shots of trees abound. Everyone speaking in forcibly understated half-whispers to remind you that Things Are Serious, Damn It! There may be a $48 million price tag here, but the actual execution is endearingly amateurish.
"It makes you kill yourself. Just when you thought there couldn't be any more evil that can be invented!"
"If we're going to die, I want you to know something. I was in the pharmacy a while ago. There was a really good-looking pharmacist behind the counter. Really good-looking. I went up and asked her where the cough syrup was. I didn't even have a cough. And I almost bought it. I'm talking about a completely superfluous bottle of cough syrup, which costs like six bucks."
"Why you eying my lemon drink?!"
"We're packing hot dogs for the road. You know hot dogs get a bad rap? They got a cool shape, they got protein. You like hot dogs right? By the way, I think I know what's causing this."
How could 'The Happening,' a film that was funded by a major studio, directed by an award-winning filmmaker and stars actors of significant note possibly qualify as a B-movie? When M. Night Shyamalan defended it to the press, was he even aware of what a B-movie really is? Although he did it first, it's a method that could best be described as the "Kevin Smith/'Cop Out'" defense: if a film is reviled enough, sometimes the director will try to attempt to defend indefensible work by claiming it was meant to be stupid / sloppily made / amateurish as a way of homage or as a stylistic choice. Smith compared 'Cop Out' to a "retarded child." Shyamalan called 'The Happening' a B-movie.
Here's the conundrum to this entire thing: if 'The Happening' is intended to be throwback to B-movies, as Shyamalan has retroactively claimed, then it's a failure, mainly because it feels nothing like the B-movies of the '50s and '60s. Because the film takes itself so seriously -- because it's obvious that Shyamalan actually believed in this film and thought he was making a gripping, thrilling, and possibly even important experience -- and because it falls so hard on its face, it ends up being a B-movie all on its own. A modern variation on the formula, for sure, but a B-movie nonetheless. The best B-movies are the films made with pure intentions by filmmakers who truly, honestly believe that they're doing good work. Surely there is some irony in enjoying bad films, but the films themselves need to be irony-free.
Essentially, 'The Happening' is a B-movie not because M. Night Shyamalan wanted it be a B-movie, but because he tried so hard for it to not be a B-movie.
As frequently reviled as it is, 'The Happening' is by no means unwatchable. It's a quick, easy watch that goes down smoothly and without too much actual pain, thanks to escalating stupidity, boneheaded dialogue, and ridiculous non-sequiters that pop up with stunning frequency. The people in 'The Happening' are stupid and they do stupid things on such a consistent basis that you can't help but wonder if Shyamalan actually intended for these characters to be morons. The actors themselves look completely lost. Obviously directed to be as "earnest" and "naturalistic" as possible, they end up wandering around the entire film looking cartoonishly baffled, confused and, on occasion, slightly impaired.
For example, Wahlberg spends most the running time looking something like this:
And Deschanel, who has even less of a character, spends the entire movie wearing this expression on her otherwise pretty mug:
In the same way that it often takes a director with real vision to make a film this bad (and whether you like him or not, Shyamalan certainly has vision), it takes otherwise competent actors to deliver performances like this. There is nothing bland or boring, the trademarks of real bad acting, from these folks. This is a perfect case of actors going out on a limb for their director, doing specifically what he's asking of them, and then being let down in a big way. You don't get work like this by accident. These performances have been meticulously crafted, just in the opposite direction of "good."
What's especially strange about watching 'The Happening,' in all of its glorious badness, is how clearly it is a Shyamalan film. The man is no work-for-hire; he's an auteur. When he makes a movie, he means it. The pacing, cinematography, and tone all bear his distinctive signature and if viewed on mute and in small chunks, this is obviously a film from the man who made 'The Sixth Sense', 'Unbreakable' and 'Signs.' It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where things went so horribly wrong, but 'The Happening' feels like a parody of his previous work. Not a broad, gag-driven 'Airplane!'-style parody, but a subtle, knowing parody that plays like one big inside joke for people who are familiar with his films.
'The Happening's desperate need to say something about love and nature and the destructive nature of the human race, and its deadly serious tone in the face of such silly performances and dialogue, make it a bad movie treasure. Someday, the actual derision will vanish, the anger at paying $10 to see it in theaters will dissipate, and people will remember it fondly as one of the great bad movies of its decade, a masterpiece of goofy awfulness that screams so loudly and falls so far that you can't help but love it. What an adorable little movie.
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