What just happened?
The Happening USA/India/France 2008
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
20th Century Fox Region 2
Warning: There be spoilers happening for this and other Shyamalan films in this article!
I think I’ve talked about M. Night Shyamalan on my blog a few times before. He’s a very talented director and writer who, mostly I feel, just slightly misses the mark when it comes to delivering on the set ups of his movies. Plus he’s really not very good at hiding the obvious conclusions that can lead you to the ending of the film, sometimes within just a couple of shots at the start of the movie (case in point on that was The Village, a movie which telegraphs its ending on shot number two by the way it’s put together).
Shyamalan first came to my attention when I went and saw The Sixth Sense at the cinema... this was an okay and scary film but pretty much within the first 15 minutes you can figure out that the lead character is pretty much dead... what other explanation would there be for the nature of the performances and the pretty blatant sleight of hand within the camera work.
Unbreakable was a more satisfying film because the writer/director kept you concentrating so much on the question as to whether the central character is or isn’t a superhero, that the real twist in the movie kinda leaps at you in the last couple of minutes... that was the only time I’d been impressed with the ending of a Shyamalan movie but it really doesn’t matter in some ways because, even though the camera kind of gives things away in his movies, the end result is usually entertaining whether you got there before the characters in the movie or not.
However, Shyamalan’s big problem was that, by the success of those two movies, his reputation has been kind of cemented as a guy who makes big budget Twilight Zone style stories and because of that, the audience is expecting a clever (oh, okay, maybe not so clever) twist at the end and so, when he tries to make a movie without a twist, everything about the brilliance of some of the way these movies are put together gets thrown out the window by an angry audience who are out for blood. Signs had exactly that effect on me because... well it’s a Shyamalan film so it must have a twist ending, right? So there I am watching an interesting movie about a possible alien invasion and all I’m thinking all the way through is... “no Shyamalan’s gonna be smarter than this, this isn’t aliens, this is something clever and brilliant which I haven’t quite figured out yet but I’m sure the revelation will be absolutely awesome and we’ll all kick ourselves for not seeing it earlier”... and then it turns out to be aliens. Seriously? What the f-? That kinda let me down big time with Shyamalan’s work (and don’t even get me started on The Village properly ‘cause I’ll tear it to pieces).
The Happening is another case in point in the problem with having a reputation of dealing twists and then not delivering on them... which is a shame because this movie has such an intriguing set up that it’s impossible not to want to find out what’s going on in it. And, like Signs, that’s the major downfall of this movie.
The films starts brilliantly with loads of people in a large park and other areas of a suburban city freezing for a few seconds and all but a few of them succumbing to “something” which makes them all kill themselves in the most hideous (sometimes) but convenient ways. There’s a brilliant sequence where dozens of builders walk off scaffolding to their collective demise. A national emergency is called and our hero Marky Mark Wahlberg and his wife and his friend and his friend's gooey, cutesy daughter go on a road trip to try to escape the epidemic of suicides that is happening all over the country.
Early on Shyamalan cleverly puts what I thought was a red herring in your mind... Marky Mark is a teacher and “nature’s defence mechanisms” are discussed. Then, later on in the story he further builds on this ridiculous premise by having a guy who owns a nursery suggest that the plants on the planet have had enough and are spreading a pollen which causes mankind to somehow kill itself (yeah, right). Unfortunately, for anyone watching this film, it turns out that in the end of the story what has been happening is that “the plants on the planet have had enough and are spreading a pollen which causes mankind to somehow kill itself”... wow! Deja vu!
Seriously, this isn’t really good enough. Okay, so the guy may have written himself into a corner with a brilliant set up which he then couldn’t explain... or it might have been his intention all along... but to keep dumbing down to the lowest common denominator and giving the audience a blatant commentary all the way through about what’s causing the problems is a terrible idea. It would have been better if those sequences had just been cut and the plant thing was a big reveal at the end... except he couldn’t have done that because by about three quarters of the way through the movie, the dwindling supply of survivors are using that explanation to stay away from trouble... so maybe an approach would have been to categorically state that this was the explanation in some way so that audiences didn’t get their hopes up for a better ending... that way the response may have been a lot more positive I would expect.
The trouble with this approach is, like all of Shyamalan’s films, the movie itself is absolutely brilliantly made and riveting to watch... right up to the end where it all caves in on itself. This guy does not end well is my opinion. But, if you’re the kind of person who can see past the weakness of one section of a movie and appreciate the rest for what it is, then you’ll see that Shyamalan’s actually a subtle blend of the celluloid sensibilities of Hitchcock and Spielberg and that he is an artist worth keeping an eye on.
As always in his films, his greatest collaborator here is composer James Newton Howard who, for some reason, always manages to deliver an absolutely top notch, knock it out of the park masterpiece of a score for Shyamalan (where he often doesn’t do that for other directors) and this one is no exception. There is a scene in this movie where our “survivors” go past a car with a parking alert sound on and I believe that same sound is the basis for this score as it is echoed, deliberately or not, in the bricks and mortar of the notes that comprise the main title. The standalone CDs of these things are always worth picking up because Howard’s true musical genius comes to the foreground on these projects.
And that’s really all I can say about The Happening. It’s very simple... if you’re the kind of person who cares about the ending of the movie and this overshadows everything else you’ve seen getting there, then The Happening is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, the ending is not going to wreck it for you and you can happily watch an interesting study in the art of cinematic suspense, then The Happening is definitely worth a look as Shyamalan usually handles the semiotics of shot flow and edit like a real auteur. And listen out for that beautiful score which creeps up on you like a ghost... it's all good stuff.