Archive for June, 2008

“The Happening” (2008)

When you’re a filmmaker who can create a taut, character driven ghost story and still manage to pull the rug out from under the audience, you’ve scored a hit. When you follow up with a film about comic book mythos, and still manage to spin a hypnotic tale, you’ve earned devotion. When you tell a story about an alien invasion and manage to capture Hitchcockian suspense, we’ll follow you anywhere.  You can photograph cardboard and we’ll show up to watch.  When you turn in something like The Happening, at best we’ll scratch our heads, and at worst, ask for our money back. 

On a clear day in Central Park, the wind whispers across the grass and everyone freezes in place. They start talking gibberish. They begin to walk backward. Soon, they’re stabbing themselves with hair picks and leaping off tall buildings, all players in an escalating, mindless terror. 

Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) learns of the devastating phenomenon as he wraps up his Pennsylvania high school science class.  School is canceled.  The phenomenon spreads, and all the larger cities across New England begin to empty. Moore meets up with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) to hop a train out of town and join the exodus.

As their train zips across rural Pennsylvania, news of the terror widens. Half-heard phone conversations and anguished cries clue us to the growing chaos.  When the train stops, Moore learns that the phenomenon has already reached the miles that lay ahead.  Suddenly, there’s nowhere to run. 

While that might read like an exciting yarn, several threads of the unfolding story distract more than they rivet.

One of the more obvious problems with the film, and they are myriad, is the rating.  Trade reports told that upon reception of M. Night Shyamalan’s script for The Happening (then called The Green Effect), 20th Century Fox suggested it might work better as an R rated thriller. The R rating generally signals caution among family oriented types, but it does not always hint toward the kind of hyper-violent gore of, say, the Saw films. Some of Hitchcock’s greatest work later earned an R rating.  The trick, as Hitch saw it, was to make the audience believe they could see more than what was actually there. 

Spielberg employed similar tricks in Jaws, as did Ridley Scott in the original Alien.  Shyamalan himself has used the technique in the past.  The Happening ignores any such sensibilities, and does so to its detriment as Night seeks to find ever more creative and bloody ways for people to kill themselves. Thus, the tension he created in the first minutes wears thin upon endless repetition. The rating does compliment one shocking moment at the close of the second act, and Night manages, if briefly, to develop frenetic terror as the psychological aspects of the strange phenomenon unfold among the rural populace. 

The cause of the phenomenon receives an airy exposition from a source best described as underwhelming. Dialog stumbles and trips over the narrative—a surprising aspect given the cast, as well as Night’s reputation for directing his on-screen talent. Wahlberg, Leguizamo and Deschanel have all proven their ability to read lines from a page without them sounding like lines from a page, yet nearly every line in the film receives treatment somewhere just above the level of a high school drama rehearsal.  The misplaced cadences and pinched monotonous whines sound bizarre against such tragic and deadly events, so bizarre you’d have a hard time convincing me that it wasn’t deliberate.

Which brings up the real enigma:  Shyamalan has proven his ability in the past.  His talent is out of the question, and fan rants that admonish his capability as a storyteller remain nothing more than just rants.  In the past, Shyamalan has presented himself as a director who asserts creative control over every aspect of a film, which would cause one to wonder why this film looks so uncanny.

A handful of moments in The Happening evoke the Shyamalan we pay to see.  As he did in Signs, Night keeps the scope of his disaster intimate, focusing on fewer characters rather than, as Roger Ebert notes, blowing us away with impressive crowd shots of mass panic. Once more, collaboration with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto delivers some stunning, and sometimes haunting, photography.  A few moments among the cast stick out as something to enjoy, particularly Leguizamo’s character Julian. 

As Julian sets out to rescue his wife, caught somewhere in the middle of the event, he hands his daughter over to Elliot and Alma.  Alma—somewhat suspect in her character, given that she recently shared dessert with a friend in an act of quiet infidelity—has earned Julian’s distrust. “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it,” he utters. It’s a sharp hook that connects Julian to the audience.  More tragic is that it’s a singular moment of meaning among many that only inspire guffaws. 

There’s a genuine thriller here, tucked somewhere underneath the hammy lines and clichés. As a “message movie,” it knows little of subtext.  Yet, the implications of Night’s apocalyptic myth remain somewhat stirring—that dreaded sense of sudden, inexplicable end.  It’s just too bad that it received such a stiff treatment, riddled with logic errors.

Perhaps the awkward nature of the film was deliberate if Night wanted to capture the discomfited mutterings of despair we’d most likely espouse under duress.  Not everyone can muster the strength to be a hero in the midst of disaster. Much of the time, our panic resembles the wails of frustrated children.  I just wish I knew for sure that he was gunning for that target. 

Tapping the profound beneath the fantastic requires characters round enough to explore those deep recesses of self, find what lives there, and confront it if necessary.  Shyamalan has explored these notions before with characters up to the task.  It seems as though this time, he gives us characters whose fiber isn’t as true. The experience is truly bizarre.

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