Thinning the Herd: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening

The Happening is the latest in a long line of Hollywood movies that depict attacks of one sort (terrorist) or another (alien) upon New York City. A mysterious mass hysteria strikes the idyllic Bethesda Terrace (a place I walk through several times a week) in Manhattan’s Central Park, and quickly fans out to the entire city. What is later referred to as “the event” or “the happening” (the latter a term popularized by hippies, I believe) appears to be some kind of airborne toxin that causes every human being within range to calmly and passively commit suicide. Speaking as a New Yorker that lived through 9/11, this opening sequence pushes fewer emotional buttons than, say Cloverfield, which was explicitly analogous to post-9/11 New York as Godzilla was to post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan. But it’s impossible to not be shaken by the charged image of office workers willingly jumping to their deaths from skyscrapers.

Having ticked the disaster movie genre box of “wholesale massacre in Manhattan,” writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan abandons New York for the remainder of the movie and transfers the action to his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia, PA. High school teachers Eliot (“Marky” Mark Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) catch wind (so to speak) of the event, and presciently make plans to take the next Amtrak train out of 30th Street Station with their families. Eliot is experiencing some friction in his marriage with Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and warns Julian that she may be acting “weird.” It’s up to the viewer to decide if he’s talking about the character Alma or the actress Zooey, whose eyes and face were truly made for the movies but whose eccentric line readings are indeed “weird.”

Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening
Beautiful downtown Filbert, PA

The train halts on the way from Philly to Harrisburg, stranding the occupants in the middle of nowhere — which is to say, the real-life small town Filbert, PA. Science teacher Eliot berates himself “be scientific, douchebag!” and uses logic to deduce the facts from the bits of evidence he’s picked up along the way: his hunch is that they are not experiencing a terrorist chemical attack, but rather that the earth’s biosphere is releasing a fatal toxin targeted to areas heavily populated by humans. They set off on foot in small groups into the kind of beautiful rolling fields where Shyamalan set his earlier parable The Village.

They come across a for-sale “Model Home”, a giant McMansion full of artificial goodies. The perfect dream home is actually in no way a refuge: there is no food or shelter, and it only serves as a lure to other groups less enlightened than they; the mere arrival of even one more fellow traveller could boost the local population to a point where the plants may attack. Here The film’s first hint of humor appears: Eliot notices a giant indoor plant eerily looming in a corner. He attempts to negotiate with it for the future of humanity, until he realizes that it too is plastic. The artificial model home is a blunt metaphor for humanity’s disposable consumerism and impact upon the environment.

The Happening
Manhattan is destroyed for the 4,937th time by Hollywood

At this point, The Happening becomes a different movie, a better one, receiving a much-needed injection of Shyamalan’s characteristic wit and masterful use of horror and suspense tropes: creepy shadows half glimpsed through window slats, batty old lady (Betty Buckley) with creepy dolls in her bed, etc. But overall it’s uncharacteristically clumsy. His best films (for my money: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) are plotted so tight you couldn’t remove a single frame without harming them.

It’s unfortunately overwritten with pages and pages of poor dialogue, including this unintentional howler featured in the trailer: note Marky Mark’s impeccable grammar upon being told his Amtrak train has lost contact: “With whom?” Julian also states with odd formality that his wife is travelling separately to “the town of Princeton.” To be charitable, perhaps Shyamalan figured high school teachers might habitually speak clearly with correct grammar.

John Leguizamo and Mark Wahlberg in The Happening
Do we have time for a cheesesteak and some Antie Anne’s before our train to nowhere?

There’s too strong a reliance on fake television news broadcasts to convey exposition (a device only resorted to once or twice in Signs), even concluding the film with a talking head scientist explaining the takeaway message for the slower members of the audience: “we’re threatening the planet.” Watch The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable again and see how much Shyamalan at his best is able to communicate without dialogue. How much would Unbreakable have sucked if Bruce Willis’ character had openly mused about how he was turning into Superman?

Significantly for a director known for working in the horror & suspense genres (fantasy, too, if you count the execrable misstep The Lady in the Water), The Happening is Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie. As if to live up to its horror film billing, the narrative frequently pauses for conspicuously gory set-pieces: a woman stabs herself with a knitting needle, a man sets a lawn mower to run over himself, etc. The brief episodes of gore contrast with what must have been the major challenge for his story: to visualize something inherently invisible: a wind-born toxin. Shyamalan signals an oncoming attack with gusts of wind. Which is, of course, preposterous because plants don’t cause wind. The characters outrunning wind is about as preposterous as the advancing killer frost in Roland Emmerich’s environmental disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.

Zooey Deschanel and Marky Mark Wahlberg in The Happening
Zooey Deschanel and Marky Mark Wahlberg peek around the corner for the next plot twist

The film’s environmental issues first appear with a faint flavor of creationism in an early scene set in Eliot’s classroom. He believes there are aspects of nature we may never truly understand, although science may slap an explanation on them in retrospect. But “just a theory” is the language of anti-intellectual creationists who wish to discount evolution. In Shyamalan’s hindu worldview, does an act of nature equal an act of god? Is the earth being malicious, defensive, or both? The planet may not be acting with conscious intelligence, but rather as a mere reaction to stimuli; a kind of thinning of the herds.

As was the case with the 2003 blackout in the northeast, Shyamalan was correct in observing that everyone’s first theory in any post 9/11 calamity would be that it’s a terrorist attack. But it’s pretty much established very early that the culprits are the plants. This pretty much drains the suspense out of the picture, and I actually wished for one of Shyamalan’s patented twist endings. It does seem hugely wimpy compared the ruthless and unsparing The Mist. If Shyamalan had had the guts to go for a bleak ending like writer/director Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation, The Happening might have been better received and perhaps remembered as one of his best.

Roger Deakins is the true star of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford earlier, I might have included it among my Most Disappointing Films of 2007. Certainly not because it’s “bad,” for could I make a better movie myself? Could I make a movie at all? And who appointed me a critic, anyway? But this blog is about my personal reactions to movies, so here goes. Assassination was praised to the high heavens by publications including Sight & Sound, so I had expected it to be one of the year’s gems. And indeed, the acting is excellent and the cinematography breathtaking. But I would describe the movie as “novelistic,” not necessarily a good thing with cinema, as opposed to, you know, novels.

Assassination no doubt inherited its notably slow pace (not in and of itself a problem for me) from its source material, the novel by Ron Hansen. I haven’t read it, but I suspect my own chief complaint likewise derives from the book: the omniscient narration. I’m not one that thinks voiceover narration is a screenwriter’s crutch to be avoided at all costs, but there are two extremes in which it can be misused: to redundantly explicate the action seen on screen or to impart information better shown that told. The Assassination of Jesse James does both. I wish I had made a note of an example or two, but there are numerous instances of narration that could simply have been cut for not adding anything to what we’re watching onscreen at the moment. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most significant events of the story, Ford’s ultimate disillusionment with James and decision to betray him to the law, happens offscreen and is offhandedly recounted by the narrator. Ford approaching the authorities to become a criminal informant would have made for a dramatic scene.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Through amber fields of grain

Although the comparison is not quite fair, I am I huge fan of the HBO series Deadwood and couldn’t help but contrast the two in my head. Please set aside for a moment the only roughly related settings (Deadwood is set in 1870s South Dakota, and Assassination in 1882 Missouri) and bear with me for a moment. Most obviously, actor Garret Dillahunt appears in both. Dillahunt may have been typecast as a 19th Century sort, but his characters could not be more different. The Francis Wolcott of Deadwood is an educated, urbane, and yet dangerously perverted proto Master of the Universe, a far cry from the suicidally ignorant Ed Miller in Assassination. But where the two diverge, and Deadwood certainly prevails, is the dialogue. David Milch’s scripting is the kind of astonishingly profane poetry that might result when characters with Victorian educations find themselves living in the ass-end of the world. I found myself spoiled by my memories of the prematurely-cancelled Deadwood, and wished Assassination had a little more of its poetry.

But enough griping – time for the praise! Roger Deakins’ cinematography is delicious, full of warm oranges and deep unbroken fields of black. A notable visual effect used to open new chapters in the story is a narrow field of focus with a blurry halo, suggesting old daguerrotypes (similar to what I’ve seen recently in The Illusionist). Guest critic Snarkbait christened the effect “Ye Old Timey Filter No. 4,” but according to an interview with Deakins in American Cinematographer, the filter is his own invention and appropriately called the Deakinizer.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The James Gang in happier days

There is fine acting all around, and two fun cameos from James Carville and Nick Cave (who cowrote the film’s music). Casey Affleck rounds out an excellent year in his career after Gone Baby Gone with a great performance as Robert Ford, obviously not billed above Brad Pitt but arguably the main character. Sam Rockwell (as Charley Ford) is especially great near the end of the film, as his simple-minded character tragically breaks down. Pitt makes a charming and earthy, yet plainly sociopathic Jesse James. James’ curse is that he’s always the smartest man in the room, but one need only witness the particularly unhinged laugh Pitt gives him to see how lunatic and criminal the man actually is.

I lied, one more complaint: Mary-Louise Parker & Zooey Deschanel, both fine, name actors, appear in miniature roles with minimal dialogue. Perhaps their characters were similarly minor in the original novel, but they seem underserved in the film. Perhaps the female presence in the actual lives of these historical figures was not significant, but to return to Deadwood for a moment, Deadwood repeatedly proved it is not historical revisionism to include women in a modern-day portrait of a bygone era.

Don’t leave Earth without Garth Jennings’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season thanks to the wonders of internet piracy. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was MORE mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (i.e. go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!