I made a sacrifice for you people. I went to go see M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which has to qualify for sainthood in some circles.
The central premise of the movie is that some mysterious happening is causing people to systematically kill themselves – first speech goes, then they start walking backwards, then they kill themselves in often rather gory fashion. Our central characters, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel) are a bland couple on the bland rocks running away from what’s surely the only interesting thing to happen in their otherwise vanilla-and-water lives in years. The film does exactly what you expect an M. Night Shyamalan film to do: take an intriguing concept and competent direction, and then send the whole thing zooming into the ground as fast as humanly possible once you realize that the twist isn’t going to be as good as The Sixth Sense.
The Happening, however, has a special twist to it. Okay, plotwise, plants are releasing a neurotoxin that’s making everyone kill themselves. Big whoop. More intriguingly, The Happening is an anti-science Intelligent Design film. If a conservative ever asks why Hollywood doesn’t make conservative films, The Happening’s hopeful failure should be the first item on the rebuttal list. Let’s get past the mechanics of filmmaking first. Shyamalan is a competent director, but hasn’t learned much in the past ten years. He directs the film with the same sort of detached gaze that made The Sixth Sense so entrancing – the bare hints of horror around each corner, the methodical reveal of what terrible thing the lead character is seeing – but that simply doesn’t work for his other plots. The Happening is basically people versus plants, and the plants are not only everywhere, but go from safe to deadly with nothing but the wind as a sign of their threat. For a movie that deals in gory deaths, from a needle to the neck to mass jumping off of a construction site to a chain of self-shootings with the same gun to a man laying down in front of a lawnmower and letting himself be chewed up alive, everything happens in a decidedly cold and bloodless manner, as if Shyamalan doesn’t want you to be too shocked or too scared to miss his point. There’s no horror, just observation.
The point, then, is summed up in the film’s bookends of scientists – Elliot Moore at the beginning, a scientist discussing the fallout at the end – opining about unexplained mysteries of nature. Sometimes, you see, science just can’t explain things. Irrationality is being pawned off as rationality, incomprehension as explanation. This, of course, is a fundamental tenet of intelligent design, wherein the unexplainable is filled in with the God of the Gaps, ID denials aside.
Seeing this in motion is startling, all the more so because it’s introduced in the midst of a high school science class.
As the ethos to the drama of a horror movie, it’s impossible to escape, even during the movie’s better crafted moments. The movie telegraphs its intent at every turn – the reveal that plants are behind the suicides is shoved hamfistedly in the middle of the plot. That the threat will crest and then fall off rapidly is made obvious well before it happens. There is nothing unexpected because the goal isn’t to scare you, to shock you with what’s around the corner, but rather to impress you with the systematic and brutal plan that nature (and the director) has laid out.
The whole thing, however, is entirely unimpressive. The systematic extermination of the human race through Shyamalan’s eyes really isn’t that sad of a thing, all told. Scientists who are too intellectually facile to wonder if there’s something behind a mass neurotoxin release from every plant in a several hundred mile radius? If we are too cowed by the greatest mass death in history to even investigate the hows and whys of it, what was the point of surviving?
The Moores are supposed to be our point of reference for this terrible event. Wahlberg’s performance as Elliot is one of the few redeemable things about the movie, but he’s still stuck with lines that force his to speak like a pedantic grammarian, inserting proper whoms in the midst of what’s supposed to be confused terror. As the driving force of the movie, he embodies the problem with the film’s take on people – that they’re only there to drive the fable towards its end, all tools of the grand designer (Shyamalan playing around as God). Things seem to happen because they’re supposed to, not because people would actually act that way.
Alma Moore is perhaps one of the most laughably stupid characters that’s ever graced a summer multiplex. Zooey Deschanel is an actress who always exudes a quiet intelligence about what’s happening onscreen, as if she read the script before everyone else did and is giving you a wink and a nod to just trust her and follow along. In this case, she seems to have read the script and just gone into denial about the 90 minutes of bullshit she’s a part of.
Alma has problems showing her emotions. How do you know? Because twice in fifteen minutes, she says it, point blank. It’s a core piece of characterization that Shyamalan didn’t seem to have confidence in his actors to show. Her Alma seems almost as if she has Asperger’s, incapable of relating to others properly or responding to the moment at hand. Treading through what’s quite literally a killing field, she reveals a dark secret to Elliot – she had dessert after work (tiramisu, to be exact) with her coworker, Joey. Joey, of course, is the offscreen voice of M. Night Shyamalan, who is now both God and the dude that the female lead wants to fuck.
If he could have dressed up as a tree, I’m sure he would have.
Her almost-dalliance with Joey, though, is so asinine and even innocent that instead of making you look at the Moores as a couple, it just makes you wonder why they’re even together. The simplest answer? They were meant to be. And we figure this out at the end as Alma is with child, blessed by the benevolent M. Night with the greatest gift he can imagine.
Equal parts heavyhanded, heavyhearted and just plain heavy, The Happening is a movie about Intelligent Design…and about the notable and repeated failures of its designer.