I was right.
This is why I have to take special considerations when reviewing Night's 2008 release The Happening. You see, to me, The Happening was not only not a good film, but was comparable in many places to swallowing Ruffles whole with no drink. Then being forced to open a second bag and munch down all over again.
My daughter, on the other hand, an Honors Student in the Writing Conservatory at the exclusive Orange County High School of the Arts (in short, no slouch) LOVED the film. This gives me pause. While up until Lady in the Water I considered that Night could do little wrong, these two latest films seemed to be hurting for any examples of the "Right". Part of me has to wonder, though, is this film somebody's Unbreakable? Does this film speak to such a specialized audience that, I feel, that one did?
Perhaps. After all, there is nothing technically wrong with the film. The lighting, effects, cinematography, sound and most other things are not poorly done (Night still seems to attract Boom Mics into frames like ants to honey, though). The acting isn't bad and the directing by Shyamalan, per se, is still fine. The story (also by Shyamalan) on the other hand... well...
Essentially The Happening isn't markedly different than Signs with a different catalyst featured for the world's near-end. It all starts when ordinary people become disoriented briefly, then develop a sudden, uncontrollable, yet completely calm drive to kill themselves. Yeah. By any means at their disposal. Uh-huh!
The whole thing starts in New York and the immediate fear is that this is some new biological attack by some pig-pleasuring Terrorist Group. Soon it starts spreading and growing until the entire Eastern Seaboard is filled with a bunch of corn-balls acting like Lemmings in a Disney True-Life Adventure! Not everyone is affected, though, so naturally the witnesses are in a constant state of Paranoid Panic. It's right around this point that we meet Mark Wahlberg's Elliot Moore, a high school teacher who seeks to explain the whole thing scientifically. That is... when time permits, seeing as how he's forced to flee Philly with the rest of the usual gang of idiots. That gang also includes his good buddy (and fellow teacher) Julian (John Leguizamo), Julian's troubled daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and, occasionally, Elliot's semi-estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). Sadly, everywhere they flee to either shows evidence of everybody killing themselves already or the growing and shrinking parties these folks find themselves in start to have suicides in their ranks. And Elliot wants to explain this all logically and scientifically! Did anybody check to see if Mark Wahlberg's brother's band had just put a new album out? I'm thinking that could be the answer behind the whole thing! I know I considered suicide when I heard they were touring.
So who could be next to take a ride on the self-euthanizing choo-choo train? And what's really to blame here? Terrorists, Donnie, Mad Scientists... or... could it be... vegetables?
The film progresses with a series of theoretically disturbing scenes of mass self-slaughter with the occasional surprise here and there (yes, Night has earned the claim that this is his "First R Rated Film", no this isn't as excessive as your average slasher flick... and no there isn't any nudity).
There is, however, a rather long wait for The Happening to happen. The repetitive second half serves mainly to reduce the group of survivors to the few actors you know already (at least, some of them), as the story reveals that smaller groups attract The Happening less than larger assemblies. So what's the message here? Was the early suggestion of a terrorist attack meant to clue us in to Night's intended metaphor? Is this paranoid isolation for survival sub-plot intended to be a meta-fictional commentary on our times? Or is The Happening just another b-grade disaster movie?
Of course we can't end the second half without enhancing the Love Story between the Moores, nor can we end without some of Night's trademarked (but now maybe a bit forced) quirkiness. To both ends, Elliot wears one of those Mood Rings. That McGuffin allows Alma and Elliot to expound upon their all-but-lost romance as they reminisce, teary-eyed, over how they got it and what color meant what emotion. When they try to recall "What Color Was LOVE?", the eye-rolling answer is "I can't remember!"
That's The Happening, man. Every frame seems like it should be a better movie, but instead it's a saccharine aftertaste of a superior film somewhere else. Even the ending is more of a question of just why in all hell we sat through this whole movie. Here's the thing, though... I can't go saying that this movie sucks curdled milk through a sewer-rescued silly straw without opening up some of the same questions about the often inaccessible Unbreakable, which I consider to be unassailable. It could be that after the wide commercial, critical and public appeal of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan is steadily targeting more specialized tastes until every man, woman, child, gnome and hamster has his, her or its own Night Flick! I can see it now "You used all six senses to read the signs from the village across the water to learn the unbreakable truth behind the happening... now, this summer, get ready... for Jeni Popaneudo of 651 Boggart Street, Springfield, Ohio's Movie"!
On my way home from watching M. Night Shyamalan's Signs I remember passing one of those huge Semi Trucks on the freeway. The oversized bolts on the hub spun so fast that they seemed to be one, singular, circular piece of chrome. But every so often time would seem to freeze and every single bolt would become visible for a split second. I remember thinking what a perfect metaphor for Signs that was. Every so often something would become clear showing us the real picture as well as the true elements of this story. Did everyone walk out of Signs with such surreal notions? No, dear. Therefore I must remember this very fact before I say The Happening Licks Dicks. Hell, there could be somebody out there right now reaching for a Kleenex and muttering "brilliant" during the last half of Lady in the Water. It only stands to reason that as poor of an effort as I think this film is, The Happening may well be somebody's Signs or Unbreakable or even The Sixth Sense. (I imagine some form of hallucinogenic might be involved for those scenarios.) For me, however, The Happening gets a very generous Two and One Half Stars out of Five. Generous, yes. The Happening seems like the seed of what could have been a good film, but Night just kept throwing more and more fertilizer on it instead of helping it to grow in other ways. Okay, enough of this happening. I'll see you in the next reel. Eat your vegetables, folks! Don't kill yourselves over bad movies.
They've been called true fertilizer... I assume for the imagination.
At least that's what the online translator said my European readers were trying to tell me.