Saturday, June 14, 2008
A Night to Forget: The Happening
The Happening begins with a parade of suicides. A woman stabs herself in the neck. Construction workers jump off a building. A policeman turns his firearm on himself. Etcetera. Why these deaths are occurring isn’t apparent at the start, yet what is clear is that these people are possessed. So, too, it seems is M Night Shyamalan. His sixth major motion picture is so disastrous that it feels suicidal. And whereas his previous outright flop, Lady In The Water, was an overly ambitious muddled mess, The Happening is just plain lousy. It’s poorly conceived, poorly written, poorly acted and poorly directed. By comparison, it makes the miserable Lady look magnificent.
That The Happening’s utter failure is a major disappointment for this moviegoer will shock no one who read my conversation earlier this week with Cooler friend Hokahey, about the films of Shyamalan. In town this weekend for a visit, Hokahey attended The Happening with me. We figured it was only right to give Shyamalan’s latest film a similar examination. Here’s a transcript:
(Warning: This discussion contains spoilers. Read ahead at your own risk. Or, considering the quality of the movie, don't read ahead at your own risk.)
Jason Bellamy: When we wrapped up our previous discussion on M Night Shyamalan, you said that The Happening would succeed because Shyamalan knows how to get touching performances out of his actors, how to set a memorable mood, how to frame stunning images and how to tell a meaningful story. You’ve now seen The Happening –
Hokahey: And as for my prediction, The Happening proves that Shyamalan has forgotten how to do any of that. Amazingly, he creates a toneless film.
JB: I agree. In fact your list of things that Shymalan has previously done well is like a checklist of the things he got wrong with his latest film. So let me ask you: what’s The Happening’s biggest failure? Is there one?
H: Well, before I get to that let me say that my favorite part of the whole movie was the opening credits, which built some atmosphere with the shots of the sky and fast-motion clouds turning from fluffy white to dark.
JB: In other words you liked the movie right up until it exhibited any writing, acting or plot?
H: Right. And I’d say the biggest failure of the film is the screenplay, because it builds no tension, drama or suspense. It sets up a disaster movie premise and never goes anywhere significant with it.
JB: I agree. The Happening is a movie that could be read a number of different ways. It’s a movie about the environment and our impact on the environment. It’s a movie about how man reacts in a crisis situation. It’s a movie about the unexplainable and random occurrences. And around all of this, theoretically, is the framework of a disaster movie. There are elements of a zombie movie too, and a love story. But it seems to me that The Happening needed to succeed as a disaster movie first and foremost.
H: And it doesn’t succeed at that, because it doesn’t do the things a disaster movie does. Often even B-disaster movies can be very satisfying. They can have poor acting and bad dialogue, but once the disaster begins and there is frantic action the movie delivers. The Happening has poor acting and bad dialogue, but it never delivers on even that basic B-movie level.
JB: And when you’re thinking of B-level disaster movies you’re thinking of …
H: Well, a rather recent movie that you could probably call a top-level disaster movie would be The Day After Tomorrow. That’s a movie that knows what to do. It delivers natural disasters right away, the death toll is high and the stakes are high. It has some expensive special effects, but it’s the story construction, not the effects, that makes the movie an intense experience. As for B-movies, you’ve got a lot of stuff from the 60s, like Earthquake. That movie has a declining Charlton Heston and a bunch of other name performers giving wooden performances and it’s slow to get started, but once the earthquake comes it delivers.
JB: A recent disaster movie I was thinking of as I was watching this was Steven Speilberg’s War Of The Worlds. Once again we have, amidst a grand event, a small story about just a few characters. And there’s a father figure and a helpless young girl. And it begins in the New York area, with shades of 9/11. But whereas War Of The Worlds is dripping with fear and consequence and panic, this movie has none of that.
If the thing Shyamalan is best known for is the big Surprise Ending, which comes from careful plot construction, the second thing he’s known for is being the modern Hitchcock – a master of suspense. His first four movies have moments designed to terrify. So I think what befuddles me most about The Happening is how a filmmaker who has made his living scaring people apparently has no idea how to create characters who are afraid. Am I alone here? Did any of these characters display actual genuine fear?
H: No. There was no fear in the entire movie, from the very beginning. Sometimes it was bad acting, but even more it’s a writing or directing failure because while a lot of situations were weird, they weren’t scary. This is a movie with people on the run from either a massive terrorist attack or some inexplicable natural event and yet there’s no sense of desperation. In War Of The Worlds, which you mentioned earlier, Tom Cruise’s convincing portrayal of fear and his desperation to keep his daughter alive is memorably done. There are no memorable performances in this film.
JB: Right. At the beginning of the movie, for example, the looks on these characters’ faces suggest that they’ve been inconvenienced more than anything. First, there’s an inexplicably calm scene of people evacuating Philadelphia (one character compares getting a train ticket to the Christmas rush to buy a Cabbage Patch doll, but, nope, there’s not even that kind of pandemonium). Then the characters are on the train, and it stops and these people look like they’re trying to be concerned, but it never really works. I’ve seen more emotion on the subway when there’s a 2-minute track delay. And unlike War Of The Worlds or the flashback scenes in I Am Legend, Shyamalan’s scenes are constructed so that the main characters always seem to be the most concerned figures in any room they walk into. There’s no grand panorama of hysteria; it’s just a bunch of people with quizzical looks on their faces.
The irony, perhaps, is that the only character who seems truly worked up over any of the plot’s events is Mark Wahlberg’s Elliot. Both of us were worried about Wahlberg going into this movie: just hearing Wahlberg’s voice whenever the trailer came on I thought he sounded flat and fake. And in the movie, sure enough, he feels flat and fake. And yet he’s the only character who seems to realize the gravity of the situation.
H: If you’re going to pick an actor like Mark Wahlberg, you’ve got to give him some good direction. In this movie he comes off like a poor actor in a movie with a poor screenplay. But, as I said before, disaster movies traditionally have poor acting. That doesn’t mean they can’t work. So there has to be tension.
One thing that I find interesting here is Shyamalan’s use of the horrific image. In The Sixth Sense he went for those cheap, easy scares, with people hanging in the building and the kid with the back of his head shot off. He went away from that in Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, and the subtle stuff is more effective, as it almost always is. But in this movie he returns to the graphic, and the result is horrible. It falls flat. In one scene there’s a lion chewing off someone’s arms in a zoo. First of all, a lion doesn’t even eat that way, but the gross-out scene is empty. All the graphic parts have no tension or suspense or shock to them.
There was one sequence that had a glimmer of suspense, and that’s when the characters realize that smaller groups are less threatening to nature and they look down the ridge and see two groups coming together. They know that’s disaster, and it’s too far away to yell, “Don’t get together.” And the groups get together and it’s disaster –
JB: Yes, it is disaster, and not in the way Shyamalan intended it, because that’s the conflict that ends with the guy lying down in front of the lawnmower.
H: Oh! Gosh. You’re right.
JB: And that moment underlines just how unsuspenseful this movie is, because we watch this tractor drive over a guy and see his body explode, and it’s like, “Oh, OK.” The only interest in these death scenes is the number of ways that Shyamalan comes up with for people to kill themselves. It’s like the concept of Saw, in a way, but for a movie with all this death and supposed gore it’s not visceral, it’s not effectual, it didn’t make my skin crawl. As you said, it’s empty. It’s just there. Lots of movies these days make the mistake of having such a high body count that we don’t care about the action on screen, but if you’re making a disaster movie about human death on a massive scale, we need to feel for the victims, and we don’t here.
H: I was disappointed because I like the central, central, central idea of this movie. I like the concept of nature getting revenge. It’s like The Birds, a movie that is also unexplained but you get the feeling that nature is fighting back. In The Happening, the central kernel of the plot has hope, but it doesn’t move forward intensely enough.
JB: So do you think this movie fails because Shyamalan has too many ideas going or has no idea at all? I’m looking at the finished product and I’m wondering: what’s the germ of this story? Wahlberg’s character, who is a science teacher, tells a story at the beginning about these bees that inexplicably disappeared, which might be due to global warming but might also be some random occurrence. Is that the germ of this story? Is it an environmental hook? Is it a disaster movie hook? Is it a zombie movie hook? Theoretically in here there’s a love story, so is that the hook? Does Shyamalan have no clue where he wants to go here, or was he trying to go in too many directions at once?
H: It’s hard to say. I think he may have been going in too many directions. I think nature’s revenge is the message, but he didn’t go about it effectively. You’re right, he got distracted with other things. Probably Lady In The Water proves that he can get really distracted with unimportant details.
JB: Speaking of Lady In The Water: If you had told me a week ago that The Happening would be not just worse but considerably worse than Lady In The Water, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that it would be a bigger disappointment than Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, which is a masterpiece by comparison, I wouldn’t have believed you. But the even bigger surprise is this: The thing that Shyamalan has always delivered in his movies is a sense of atmosphere, mood and ambiance. Even his worst films in their worst moments have that. But The Happening has all the atmosphere of an airport bathroom stall.
H: Right, there’s no presence.
JB: Yeah. I mean, to what extent does this even feel like an M Night Shyamalan film?
H: It doesn’t at all, and that’s what I felt the absence of right away. From the very beginning, the camera set-ups have no Shyamalan signature. There’s no feel or magic to them. A lot of this stuff feels shoddy and rushed as if he had to have everything on the first take.
JB: I agree with you. And so with this amateurish staging, the only thing that feels like typical Shyamalan is the awkward writing. He’s had elements of that in the past, but previous to this I’ve been able to look past those faults and defend them. We had that conversation about The Village and I pointed out that, no, these characters don’t come across like people in a genuine late-1800s setting, but, guess what: they aren’t. It’s an act. And so the dialogue reflects a misguided modern idea of what the late 1800s looked and sounded like. It’s a play within a play, and it works. In Unbreakable a lot of the dialogue that seems stiff at first we later realize is that way by design to evoke the classic tenets of a comic book. Beyond that, Shyamalan would always write cringe-worthy lines here or there, but the larger film experience was so enriching that you looked past it. Or at least I did. Here there’s nothing larger to get lost in and so all the faults are glaring.
The low point probably – and it’s extremely difficult to identify the low point of this movie – comes in that scene at the diner when the woman taps Elliot on the shoulder to show him that video from the zoo of the lion attack. This guy is standing there next to these lions and he has to coax them into attacking him in the first place, and then he remains perfectly upright as these lions rip his arms off like something out of a Monty Python bit (“It’s only a flesh wound!”). Give me a break!
H: Exactly. So here’s Shyamalan, and he wants to make a shocking scene, and so he strays from reality, having the guy just stand there as his limbs are being torn off his body. If Shyamalan had showed the lions reacting as they really would – they would have jumped on top of the guy and dragged him off somewhere – done as a fleeting image, that would have been much more intense.
JB: It smacks of a desperate filmmaker. Because I guess he thinks this is a cool device, because we’re watching this video on someone’s iPhone. But in the audience we’re watching this smaller movie within our movie. We’re several levels removed: there’s the guy, the people watching the guy who shot the video, the people watching the video of the guy in the diner and then us. I felt totally disconnected.
And all of this leads to one of the worst lines in the film, from the woman watching what should be vomit-inducing video: “Mother of God, what kind of terrorists are these?” I wish I could say that she screams that line like Heston at the end of Soylent Green, but she doesn’t. She says it with the intensity of a woman who has found a hair on her sandwich. So what made me sickest wasn’t the lion attack but the dialogue. And there are several moments like that in this movie:
There’s a terrible scene – and I feel terrible for the actress – where we watch a woman as she listens to her daughter commit suicide on the other end of a cell phone. The staging of the shot is removed and unimaginative: a bunch of people standing around in a circle gawking at this woman while she has a meltdown. It looks like an acting class, like an improv device: “OK, you just listened to your daughter die, what do you do ...?” It’s painful. And then there are all these moments where characters say things that just make no sense. Like in one scene, when they’re at the model home that they don’t yet realize is a model home, Zooey Deschanel’s character is with the little girl and her line is: “This place must have a bathroom.” Well, fucking of course it has a fucking bathroom. It’s a fucking house!
H: Right. What she should be saying is: “I’m going to take her to the bathroom.” And a similar line is at the beginning of the movie, at the construction site. These construction workers hear a crash and they see that someone has fallen off the building. They walk up to him and see that he’s almost certainly dead, and the first part is okay: he radios for help –
JB: Although even that’s pretty nonchalant.
H: And then the guy kneeling there says, “Give him room.” What? Give him room? Why?
JB: I’d forgotten about that one, but, you’re right, that’s horrible. And I’m glad you mentioned that scene, because when all those bodies are raining down from the roof of the construction site it’s an obvious visual allusion to 9/11 and I was wondering, were you gripped by that?
H: With the first crash, I tried. But the sound effect was almost comical. And the people’s reactions were ill-timed. And it just didn’t work.
JB: What I thought of during that scene, and at other moments, was the frog scene from Magnolia. I got the sense watching this movie, “Damn, M Night just watched Magnolia for the first time two years ago and this is his big Stuff Happens movie.” But Magnolia tells an actual story with actual emotion while still playing with the inexplicable. Shyamalan, instead, dives just into that one area and still can’t make it work.
H: Yeah. And in Magnolia those inexplicable events bring people together, and here there’s none of that.
JB: Not successfully anyway. But that leads us to another surprise, which is that the same filmmaker who gave us this straightforward, sweet and yet devastatingly touching love story in The Village comes up empty with this ... this ... I don’t even want to call it a love story: this relationship between Wahlberg’s Elliot and Deschanel’s Alma.
H: It’s the most awkward relationship I’ve seen in a film, ever, that I can think of. They never act like a couple that’s living together.
JB: It really is. One of my pet peeves with movies is when they insert a relationship story into disaster. It happened in Indiana Jones, for example, where somehow amidst all this violence and near-death at the hands of the Russians, Indy immediately falls in love again with Marion Ravenwood, as if no time has passed. You would think they would preoccupied by other things and that love would come later. But lots of movies do this. Yet what The Happening does is one click on the wheel stranger because every time Shyamalan tries to squeeze in the Elliot-Alma subplot it brings what little momentum the movie ever generates to a halt.
H: It’s ridiculous: Alma feels guilty because she went behind her husband’s back and met some guy to have dessert. But it can’t just be dessert, it has to be tiramisu, as if that’s significant.
JB: Well, maybe Night just saw Sleepless In Seattle for the first time, too.
H: Right. And this brings us back to the fact that all this pained dialogue would be inconsequential if Shyamalan delivered on the action and suspense, but he doesn’t.
JB: I agree. My prediction right now is that a lot of the blame is going to be placed on Wahlberg’s shoulders, because he’s in the movie so much and he’s nasally and boring and just not very good. But the kicker is this: he’s all those things consistently.
H: And that’s a puzzler.
JB: That is a puzzler. And it leads me to believe that Wahlberg – and I could say the same thing about Deschanel, who is reduced to giving blue-eyed gazes – gives precisely the performance that Shyamalan was looking for. Because even after Night’s fall from grace with the critically panned Lady In The Water, and to a lesser degree The Village, Shyamalan is still a big name, or was before this monstrosity. The Happening was sold as an M Night Shyamalan movie. So this isn’t a case where some upstart director is working with Jack Nicholson and he hates what he sees in the dailies but his producers won’t axe Nicholson because he’s the box office draw. Wahlberg? Deschanel? Shyamalan could replace that talent if he wanted to if he didn’t like what he was seeing. But he didn’t.
Which is the long way around to saying that I could argue that Wahlberg gives the best performance in the movie. That’s by default a bit, I guess, because there aren’t that many characters in The Happening. But of any of the characters he’s the only one who seems to give a shit. When you think about it, Wahlberg’s performance actually works for the train-wreck dialogue that Shyamalan has written for him. It doesn’t benefit the film, but the performance matches the character as written. So I’ll ask you this: If we have a better actor in that role with those lines, would we have a better movie?
H: No. We’d have a bigger shame. Because Mark Wahlberg, let’s be honest, still gets something out of this: he got to star in a big summer movie. So he’s happy. But if you put a better actor in there it just would have underlined the disappointment.
And here’s a comparison: When Orson Welles got to the end of his career and was just this big fat guy in these throwaway roles, you couldn’t help but remark: “Oh, poor Orson Welles. Look where he’s gone.” And you knew he was eating too much and drinking too much and going down the tubes.
JB: Marlon Brando had that fall.
H: And Errol Flynn, too. Watching this movie I kept thinking about that, like, “Oh God, M Night Shyamalan has lost his mind.” With Lady In The Water you could see some of the same quality of his previous films and you thought, “Oh, it’s just misguided. He’s trying to do too much.” With this film I thought, and not as joke, “He’s gone insane.”
JB: I know what you mean. It’s hard to believe that this is a Shyamalan movie. And going back to Lady, at least that’s pretty to look at. The Happening has no redeeming qualities. Not one. There aren’t 10 consecutive minutes of solid moviemaking in that entire debacle. And so that leads us here:
It’s 2010. Shyamalan releases another movie. Do you see it?
H: I probably do, because I’m curious, and because I’m ever hopeful. And because I’ve gone to movies that I’ve known were going to be bad because I was drawn by one element or another. So, yes, I’ll probably go and see it. But right now, I’m just baffled. I’m baffled.
JB: Me too. I think I’ll see his next movie. But unless the trailer blows my mind and gives me hope, I already know that I’m going to be going into that movie with the lowest of expectations. I’m going to be drawn to that film like I’d be drawn to see Mel Gibson in a room with an open bar, topless women and Jews. Something disastrous is going to happen, and it’s going to be ugly, and I must see. That will be what draws me to the theater next time, and that’s depressing. Because right now I have zero confidence that he’ll ever make a good film again. Even just a good film, not a great one.
When we go back to his previous films, like them or not you have to agree that they were made with passion. You could feel how much Night cared about those stories. Sometimes, perhaps, he willed them to success by his love of the material alone. But I feel no passion in this movie.
H: No, there’s none. And my theory is that as his movies have drawn fewer and fewer people and increasingly negative reviews that people in the industry must be giving him advice to collaborate with another writer or go a different direction and it feels as if he’s pushing forward his way toward destruction.
JB: So let me offer you this: You are the Michael Clayton of moviemaking. You are the fixer. But, as if in an M Night movie, you’ve got some sort of supernatural power. So with a wave of your hand you can change one element of this movie. What do you change?
H: I’d change the direction of the disaster. I’d make it a disaster caused by nature, but it causes humans to kill each other instead of themselves, and once it starts it’s non-stop action and no one is safe. It wouldn’t matter if you had bad acting or bad dialogue, because once the audience was swept up in the intensity of it, the rest is just details.
JB: That would be a good change. If I’m trying to fix this movie, I think I go with a more dynamic presence in the lead role if I can only change one thing. But that’s a contradiction because I think Wahlberg was directed into the performance he delivers here, so maybe that wouldn’t have made a difference. I have to say, if I was drawn to anything in this movie, I was drawn to Wahlberg. So this film seems unsalvageable to me.
You’re probably right that the crux of the problem is in how it approaches its disaster. I mean, can we agree that wind isn’t all that sinister and that it isn’t particularly easy to film? Plants may be the thing fighting the humans, but it’s the wind that these characters are running from. At one point one of the characters even says: “We’ve got to stay ahead of the wind.” I don’t know how that’s done, exactly, but that line pretty much encapsulates the ridiculousness of this whole project.
H: I would have made the vegetation the clear ‘bad guys,’ because that’s worked in the past in The Day Of The Triffids, in an Outer Limits episode with the tumbleweeds and in this year’s The Ruins, with the vines. It can be done and it can be done effectively and he didn’t do it.
JB: So we agree hands down that this is the worst Shyamalan movie ever. So let’s up the ante. Is it the worst movie you’ve seen so far this year?
H: Well, formerly I was calling Indiana Jones the worst movie of the year – but now, definitely, The Happening takes its place – though Indiana Jones is a close second. It’s sad when filmmakers like Spielberg and Shyamalan can’t deliver a decent movie.
JB: What a disaster.