Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Happening (2008)

Night Of The Living Greenery


- I am a fan of M. Night Shyamalan - there I said it. So much of a Shyamalan fan am I in fact that I will even defend the unfairly hated Lady In The Water (2006) to the death. Simply put: I think Shyamalan is one of the better contemporary filmmakers around, making quality films that are always visually spectacular and often meaningful. I would argue that Shyamalan's 2008 film The Happening, about a husband and wife's attempt to survive a deadly environmental event, is a generally good film. However, I do have some qualms with it that make it, in my eyes, Shyamalan's weakest film to date.

The positive elements in The Happening are quite obvious in my view. For one thing, Shyamalan's direction from a visual standpoint is pretty much spot-on. Shyamalan brings back The Sixth Sense (1998) and Signs (2002) cinematographer Tak Fujimoto to work on this film and quality picture is the result. The Happening also has a definite atmosphere with many well-orchestrated and suspenseful scenes. In particular, the opening minutes of the film are chilling and the Mrs. Jones part of the film is a horror film all to itself.

The acting on a part of the main actors is also good. Mark Wahlberg has a few moments of flat line deliveries towards the second half of the film but does a good job overall. He portrays his character very well with both the emotional and humorous aspects of the character ("I'm talking to a plastic plant...."). Zooey Deschanel is also good in the film; her performance might not be of the spotlight screaming kind but she holds her own in a way that is noticeable and credible. John Leguizamo is also good in the film with a character who kind of wears his emotions on his sleeve and Betty Buckley is all-too scary as Mrs. Jones.

James Newton Howard's score is particularly fantastic - mood-setting, melodious, interesting, and makes The Happening a worthwhile film all by itself. Howard does not get enough credit for the style, feeling, and ultimate effectiveness of Shyamalan's films, but his role in The Happening is critical and obvious.

Despite the many good things about The Happening, bad points also exist in plenty. Unlike other Shyamalan stories that are interesting and meaningful, the overall story for The Happening is only mediocre. The viewer is continually interested in the story from the beginning; the main event is pretty shocking and one does care about the principle characters throughout the film's entirety. But Shyamalan also fits a well-concieved love story into this horror plot. Perhaps eclipsed by the horror aspect of the film, the love story between Wahlberg and Deschanel's characters is still included at the right places throughout the film to make it a force in the story and allows the audience to care about what is happening on screen.

However, I am not digging this story in its entirety. Obviously going for a Hitchcock/The Birds (1963) vibe, Shyamalan does not achieve the same kind of environmental fright. While I am sure Al Gore gave The Happening two green thumbs up, "When Global Warming Attacks" is not a film that can be taken 100% seriously. Hollywood is so paranoid about how other people live out their lives that one of its members has actually developed a story where the environment attacks the human race in a violent way. The film even tries to play this part down while highlighting it at the same time. Trying not to alienate viewers by tossing out a "nobody knows for sure" angle, the film still props up the "The Shrubbery Strike Back" reasoning for the event happening throughout the film by the actions of the characters.

Also, Shyamalan's environmental terror lacks any internal or external logic. The environment spreads its deadly toxin through the air and we see our main characters escaping fate by the simple closing of a door. But the funny thing about air is that it manages to get everywhere even if things look closed off to the naked eye. But even if air was easily stopped by a slamming door, it still moves around very quickly - in the film, Elliot has enough time to look scared for a while before shutting the door to try and keep the air out. The film also juggles the way that the environment picks and chooses its victims. Towards the beginning of the film, the environment targets larger groups of people allowing the main characters to remain unaffected. However, at the end of the film, the lonely house full of four (count-'em four) people in the middle of nowhere is attacked - even doing in the eco-friendly Mrs. Jones.

All of this aside, Shyamalan's writing for The Happening is a couple of notches down from his usual standard. Some areas within the film are well-written by Shyamalan but others are not. The illogical aspects of the story are a prime example of this, but there is also a good-sized helping of lame dialogue. Also, Shyamalan's technical direction fails the film too many times; especially when it comes to curbing some of the actors in smaller roles and just not constructing some scenes very well at all. A couple examples of this is the very ineffective scene with the mother on the phone with her daughter as well as the scene featuring the video of the main feeding himself to the lions, which looks like clearly doctored footage that you might find in a Super Bowl commercial. The film's supposed climactic finish is also quite different than most Shyalaman films as well in that it is very anti-climactic and mishandled. "Oh, I guess the event ended when we stepped outside," - how convenient. Most Shyamalan films are remembered for their climaxes (many including a twist ending - but not all) but The Happening finale is at best forgettable.

So for the first time ever, I was left unfulfilled by an M. Night Shyamalan film. The Happening has its good points that tip the scale over the bad in the end - it looks good most of the time, includes good performances from its main actors and is enveloped in a fantastic score. However, the film's drawbacks are plenty enough to damage the film for me. Still, I am in a state of disagreement with the vast majority of the film's critics - I found the film to be better than most suggest. The Happening worked on many levels for me and you can be sure that I will be in line for Night's future projects.

CBC Rating: 6/10

No comments: