Well, despite the ghastly reviews, I went to see The Happening, the sixth feature by thriller director / guru wannabe M. Night Shyamalan. Last time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, contra the critics, I was horribly disappointed by the stilted, weird, anti-climactic Lady in the Water. So let’s just say that my expectations weren’t very high at all.
Actually, though, it wasn’t so bad after all, at least not to me; then again, I don’t have very exacting requirements for much “plot” in the movies I enjoy, and I think the lack of dense plotting and a “twist” were part of what irked critics most. So don’t trust me, necessarily, unless you enjoy the sorts of things that I do.
For me, the best part of Shyamalan’s films has usually been the shooting: he’s willing to give long, patient shots that build suspense slowly, in a kind of Hitchcockian way, something most MTV-generation directors simply don’t have the attention spans to pull off. For this feature, he teams up again with long-term collaborator Tak Fujimoto, and once again, most of the shots are classy and suspenseful, in a sort of art-horror way that I like. However, the death of one character is blatantly foreshadowed by means of a cheap slow-mo shot of him driving away in a car that is worthy of a 1980s sentimental music video. Most unfortunate, but it was the only major technical gaffe I noticed.
I may be wrong, but I think that the acting problems that some critics noticed are mostly script problems — Shyamalan writes all of his own movies, which has worked for some, but in this director’s case, not so much. It’s as though he doesn’t stop to think about how people really talk, instead focusing on the “message” he wants to get across. So there always has to be a big “conversation” (“Do you believe in … signs?”) in which someone ponderously just happens to start discussing spirituality, the unknown … you know, a more intimidating Eckhart Tolle or something. This time, it’s a high-school student talking about forces of nature that will never be explained, which in a movie with the most vague title since 1982’s The Thing, is all too predictable.
So if Zooey Deschanel does little more than act confused throughout the whole movie, it’s at least partly the stilted script’s fault. She also does the Mel Gibson “let me open my eyes as widely as possible for dramatic effect” thing (viz. Gibson’s Hamlet) — but let’s face it, her eyes are objectively a lot cuter than Mel Gibson’s. Mark Wahlberg, who is becoming one of my favorite actors, is more than adequate as a leading man, but is also sort of forced into just “acting confused” for a lot of the time. Maybe just a horror film convention (“Oh my god, where is it? I think it’s in the … bushes!). They both shine, though, in the few humorous moments and the “we’re gonna die so let’s renew our flagging love for each other through a speaking tube” scene. Better than it sounds on paper.
Enough of that. A lot has been made of the first R-rating this director has garnered, but I’m not sure what the big deal is. Yes, there are a few gruesome suicides. But they’re only shown for a few seconds each and are absolutely nothing on anything in, say, the work of Tarantino. It’s a horror movie, guys.
And then the inevitable brouhaha about environmentalism. Again, I’m not sure why this is a big deal. Wasn’t there a big global-warming blockbuster just a few years back? And then Al Gore’s really quite excellent An Inconvenient Truth got an Oscar, something that the Shyamalan thriller is certainly not going to do. It seems like a rather small blip on the climate-change radar screen. And although the idea is seems rather silly to me — plants have been lying down and taking it from us for centuries, and no doubt will continue to do so — a movie in which plants get their comeuppance seems pretty timely to me, actually, and that counts whether you’re a climate-change believer or not. Even the most fundamentalist conservative can’t really think that blacktopping the planet and belching smoke into the formerly blue sky is actually what was intended, by God or nature.
So basically, go and see it if you’re bored. I give the whole package a B-, and advise Shyamalan to come see me in the writing center before attempting any more “naturalistic” dialogue …