by TOM NIXON
Yep, it’s that time again. Time for M. Night Shyamalan’s periodic descent from the skies to shepherd his diminishing flock; a few words of wisdom here, an enlightened phrase there. It’s what we all need, right? You seem unconvinced – the trailer did look kind of stupid, didn’t it? This is because Shyamalan doesn’t give a crap about telling coherent, interesting stories anymore. Hell, why should he? The man wrote The Sixth Sense, he hears voices for crying out loud, he’s too important for that. Heed him or perish. Frustratingly, it’s not like he’s a poor director. On the contrary he’s pretty decent when he puts his mind to it; his earlier work looked great and sounded great, he gave his characters nuance, his scenes suspense and pay off. Themes and moods ran beneath like currents driving at least somewhat engaging narratives. Sure, he was aping the masters, but in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable he did it with style.
Unfortunately that stopped being enough for Shyamalan. That need to transcend, to say something significant about the world, it became overwhelming, and his calling became clear – yes, he must teach. He’s become so obsessed with being that guy that he’s not even bothering anymore; his last appalling message movie Lady in the Water was devoid of the majority of those qualities he showed in the past (even Chris Doyle failed to keep it afloat), and that’s not even the main reason it sucked. Namely, it wasn’t a movie so much as a sermon. All grandiose statements about sending mankind down the right path, about showing us our purpose, disguised by a thin, awkward, nonsensical fairytale. He himself stars as a man who will write a great book which (and I quote) “will be the seeds of many great thoughts… seeds of change”, but in writing this book he will be sacrificing his life for the good of mankind. Almost like he was going to die, for mankind’s sins, y’know? Incidentally he also kills off a stupefyingly obnoxious film critic, a preemptive strike against anyone thinking of criticizing Shyamalan’s work or, worse, not accepting him as their savior. Could you believe this stuff when you saw it? Let’s hope you didn’t see it.
Actually, thinking about it The Happening is an improvement, all Old Testament fire and brimstone (well, wind and trees) over his previous more limp-wristed preaching sessions. People start going nuts and dying in New York – some kind of terrorist attack, they say. We already know differently, ’cause slightly camp science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) has just been talking about respect for nature, about honey bees dying for natural reasons we can never fully understand. It’s judgment day folks, there are forces at work, Christ knows what’s happening (count how many times that word is used during the film) but we sure don’t. What hangs over the picture like a bitter revelation is that nobody was listening to Saint Shyamalan’s teachings, and so like he warned we’re all going to the dogs. He can stay in the sky this time, sipping angels’ wine and smugly sneering down – we had a chance, we blew it. It isn’t coincidence that this “toxin” doesn’t kill humans so much as make them kill themselves – we’ve only got ourselves to blame. It’s nature hitting back against our arrogance and ignorance and all that other stuff Shyamalan never, ever indulges in.
Like some of his prior efforts, The Happening is too ridiculous ever to take seriously and too free of irony to work as a comedy. It is occasionally funny, but only because it tries not to be. A crazed, misanthropic old woman headbutts a window and it’s supposed to be horrifying, instead it’s hilarious. Lines like “can you believe how crappy people are?” sound so indignant and perplexed, it’s fun imagining Shyamalan’s outraged expression as he wrote them in. The whole thing is a fascinating watch (hence the generous one star) because there’s this constant struggle between the director’s desire to warn or punish his audience, and the need to give his movie pulling power. Wahlberg’s character is completely one-note, his wife (Zooey Deschanel) is unstable and annoying, the little girl (Ashlyn Sanchez) cries a bit and smiles a bit and has moments of courage as is her duty during a movie tragedy. Their relationships are completely empty, and nobody else is worth mentioning. Acting is flat, events are random with barely any progression between them. Shyamalan puts 100% of his energy into injecting this most blatant of warnings with a whole sea of bleak dread, narrative and characters and sense be damned – rarely has such laughable, preposterous nonsense been so self-importantly misanthropic. It’s really kind of disturbing that the guy writes stuff like this, but at the same time it makes The Happening weirdly compelling, which is more than can be said for his last couple of atrocities.