The Happening: Year: 2008, Writer & Director: M. Night Shayamalan, Budget: $57 million (estimated), Gross: $30 517 109 (as of June 15th, 1008)
it's happening!!! it started with a few critics and then as more and more people saw the film, the negative comments and reviews continued, and continue, to grow. it is becoming an epidemic of mass proportions and i, along with ebert, roeper and about %18 of the rotten tomatoes critics are the only ones left to fight it...
ya, i liked The Happening. no, i didn't love it, and it is m. night's worst film (although i haven't seen Wide Awake), but ya, i liked it. that does, however, work out well, because this week i want to talk about The Happening, his worst film, in conjunction with my favorite of his movies, Unbreakable.
m. night is such an interesting and dichotomous film maker to me. on one end he is brilliant: he creates some very interesting and thrilling stories and is pretty masterful at creating a mood and getting the audience to feel and react as he wants them to, without us feeling manipulated.
then on the other hand his dialogue can be stilted and feel forced and he can really ruin great ideas by taking them too far and not trusting himself (like in The Lady In The Water when he shows us the creatures at the end and they look like dudes in bad costumes, rather then keeping them in the shadows and keeping the fear psychological and partially unknown for example).
and yet, problems and all, i really do enjoy his films. there is just something about his stories and the way he tells them that engages me and overrides problems that in other films would be the reason i didn't like the movie. i can't always fully explain it, but there it is. for all the intellectual discussions we have about films and our judgments of them, much of it in the end comes down to, at least for me, how i 'feel' about it. and from that comes the critiques and discussion points and ideas...
so lets get to the movies: we got our 70s sci-fi movie, The Happening and our superhero movie, Unbreakable.
in The Happening, some event/happening is taking place across the northeastern united states that is causing masses of people to start killing themselves. as it spreads out of the cities, people flee. but what is it? what is happening?
in Unbreakable, a man is in a massive train accident and, not only is he the only survivor, but he is completely unharmed in any way. what does this mean? who is this man? who is he supposed to be?
m. night loves films with questions. he wants you to ask them and think about them and then he gives us the answers and sometimes they aren't the ones we expected. but, either way, the discovery, for me, in his films is always interesting.
i mentioned how both these films were archetypes of different genres (the sci-fi movie and the superhero film) and that they are. from how they are shot, to the score they use, to the mythology behind the stories, especially with Unbreakable which does it so damn well.
watching The Happening i couldn't help thinking about films like 28 days later and the 70s version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. the unknown threat, the population being killed, the few remaining people trying to survive and figure out the rules to what it is so that they can protect themselves. with the use of the landscape as a character and the sometimes over-the-top score, the film recognizes what it is doing.
in Unbreakable we have a wonderful superhero mythology created. not that i have time to get into a whole joseph campbell 'hero's journey' here, but anyone who reads comic books, or has seen superhero movies will recognize this story. what the film is really, is the origin story.
in the special features on the dvd m. night talks about how the film was initially three parts with the hero discovering who he is being just the first part like it is in most superhero movies, followed by the hero using his powers part and the conclusion.... (think Spider-man, Ironman, Batman, etc.....). however, that wasn't working for him and so he instead decided to turn the origin story into the whole film, and that worked brilliantly.
this is also his best filmed film. a comic book is really a movie told in still images and m. night and his cinematographer eduardo serra use that idea to create wonderful still images within the context of moving ones, with the use of long takes and interesting framing and angles and lighting and colors .
i have no problem with mark wahlberg. in fact, his performance in Boogie Nights is one of the best and most underrated performances of the last decade (ok 11 years). however, in this thing he just isn't that good. this probably isn't helped by a script that is at times good and at others really not. m. night's writing, like i mentioned before, is often on the verge of stilted and in this film it falls over into it often. as for Unbreakable, it is the opposite. the performances by bruce willis and samuel l. jackson are very good and the script is wonderful.
since The Sixth Sense you can't talk about an m. night movie without talking about the ending. he unfortunately worked himself into a niche corner with that film and for many films after that one people were expecting a surprise ending (many probably still do when they go see his films). the point is that the ending of both The Happening and Unbreakable are important to any discussion of the films and for different reasons.
with Unbreakable the ending is wonderful. it provides a nice little surprise that makes you think back over the film and provides a different perspective upon a second viewing, but it doesn't feel so out of left field that the previous 90 minutes you spent watching the movie feel wasted.
as for The Happening, the ending, not giving anything away, is very anti-climactic. it just kind of ends and for an audience having taken the ride it is natural to want something with more ooumph!! i also kind of felt that way at the end, but it was in thinking about the film afterward that i appreciated it more. i am often the first to complain about a film that builds slowly only to fall into the trap of feeling the need to give us action or effects or something big, killing what they had spent the majority of the movie building up and creating (I Am Legend is a great example of this). with The Happening however, that isn't the case. the film and, especially the ending, just happen.
and yet, like i said in the beginning. i liked it. i didn't think the acting was very good and some of the dialogue doesn't work and there are probably a few holes in the story, but i liked it. i was involved and in the end i appreciated the simplicity of it. there is even a great coda at the end of the film that, of course, you see coming, but smile in appreciation of it none the less as it fits perfectly into the genre.
The Happening is far from a great film. but, even with the problems i was engaged till the end and thinking about it afterward i appreciated some of the things even more: like how it plays the 70s sci-fi genre and how the ending just ends, etc...
as for Unbreakable, this is a great movie, and although it did make money at the box office it is one that is, for some reason, often forgotten when people talk about m. night shamaylan. if you notice the trailers for his most recent films they always say 'from the director who brought you The Sixth Sense and Signs', they just leave Unbreakable off the list. well, i am here to put it back on that list, and not only on the list, but at the top of it.