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Winds of change
A cinema review of THE HAPPENING by Camus
"Absolute, complete fiction. That's complete fiction. You know what that is...?
Leave the storytelling to the storytellers, that's just such poor writing. It's just
ridiculous. It's nonsense to talk like that. That's just not at all the situation, I
have been offered more movies in the last six months than I have my entire
career combined. That's just complete nonsense..."
Manoj 'Night' Shyamalan on the mean spirited accusation
that The Happening is his make or break movie.


"Complete fiction…" "Ridiculous." "Nonsense." Protesting too much?

Hmmm. It may just be 'make or break' but perhaps not quite as sweeping as 'make or break' suggests. The Happening may not be the movie that crushes Shyamalan's storytelling spirit so much so that he entertains giving up the biz to sell vanilla ice creams (with a twist, sorry M. Night). Nor might it be the picture that drops him back to snuggle firmly on to the A List Hollywood teat with a creditable financial success. Yes, it's poppycock to suggest that a career that started so explosively (and then went up and down like a peanut in a pint) could force Hollywood not to tempt the writer/director with many different projects. But what he's saying is a little disingenuous.

A-List, B-List, C-List; anyone who's made a commercial studio movie that did any business at all will be courted by many screenplays that range from the turgid to the terrific and back to the tepid. There are more ideas and screenplays out there than employable directors. It's the mathematics of the thing. The director of The Sixth Sense will always get work. It's the kind of work he might get that's the issue here. After the financial debacle that was The Lady In The Water, Warner Brothers licked their considerable wounds and this talented, original film-maker took a considerable broadside hit (as in the solar plexus not at the box office).

To inject a little positive vibe in what, alas, will not be an endorsement of his latest effort, I reacted in much the same way as the world when I saw Lady at the cinema. But I respected the film-maker enough to have another go and was stunned to experience this gossamer fairy tale as an arrow shot right into my family's emotional core, so much so that I was startled by how much I embraced the film, narfs, scrunts, cereal packets and all, on the second and third time around. I will hazard a prediction and say boldly that in the future Lady will be re-evaluated and found to be a film of considerable depth and on top of that it turned out to be intrinsically moving. But after the disastrous returns of Lady, Shyamalan needed to get Hollywood back on his side.

I was not surprised to see another studio's logo at the start of Shyamalan's The Happening, the screenplay of which he submitted to 20th Century Fox, a screenplay which was summarily rejected. Shyamalan was encouraged to darken its tone to get it made. He darkened it, no question. But based on my reaction shared with about three hundred fellow cinema goers less than an hour ago a day before its US opening, I don't think Spielberg has anything to worry about just yet. I cannot easily bring myself to say that this is not a good film by a country mile – and that is from a fan of the man's work (it's not personal). I reviewed David Attenborough's twin TV series, The Truth About Climate Change, one made to warn people of the very real dangers of global warming. Shyamalan has taken the premise of humankind's all too real and considerable threat and proposed a counter threat from the nature that surrounds us.

Intriguing. The plants fight back. Triffids, this ain't. The principle "Oh, what does that mean?" signpost is delivered in a science class at the start, one which may have some relevance to Doctor Who fans, as it's a thread currently running through series four of Russell T. Davies' makeover show. All the bees have disappeared. Does Shyamalan pay that off? That's a negative, Houston. It's just an intriguing premise that may or may not be at the heart of the mystery. At the time of writing, I've yet to find out what Davies does with the idea via his Time Lord. But it has to be more that Shyamalan managed.

OK. Premise accepted. An airborne toxin is released by nature (AIDS anyone?) and renders people incoherent and subsequently creatively suicidal. New York's Central Park is the setting for the first 'attack' and eerily people start leaping off buildings and stabbing themselves in the neck with hairpins. It's an arresting opening. I wondered where he was going with this. Well, of course the answer is obvious to anyone who's followed Shyamalan's career – Philadelphia – where he lives and prefers to work. A science teacher and his clumsily guilty wife (she had a coffee with an attractive co-worker) flee the city with friend and friend's daughter in tow. No one knows what's causing the mass suicides. All that's implied is that the wind is not your friend. Picking off ever decreasing groups of people, the toxin spreads until it becomes selective to the point of simple narrative convenience.

I have to say that Shyamalan's instincts not to pander to those who spell his name 'M. 'twist ending' Shyamalan' have not paid off. His attempts at making a Hitchcock's The Birds homage miss the point entirely. No explanation of this airborne toxin is offered just as Hitchcock chose wisely not to tack on a 'this is why!' explanation for his birds' behaviour. Just because you make a movie with the same anti-rationale as Hitchcock, does not a Hitchcock movie make. In The Birds, the foes are feathered and ferocious. Full stop. In The Happening, the 'villain' sends gusts of wind through leaves, grass and trees (not quite attaining the same physical menace). So you have a disparate group of people all running from what they don't or cannot understand watching others kill themselves in silly ways. No, not silly. They manage it in cinematically 'Euw!' ways. We see a video of a man offering himself to lionesses only to have his arms ripped off. Cars are smashed into trees and a man lies under a lawnmower with predictably blood splattered results. But this is no George Romero gore-fest. It's tentative when it should be gratuitous (at least then I'd understand the horror of it).

So, we are led up the dangerously lethal garden path culminating in our nuclear family's refuge at a woman's house miles from anywhere. Guess what? The woman's a certifiable lunatic. At least this characterization provides some entertainment – with mad folks, the gloves are off and everything is accepted (because she's mad you see). But then we have to come down to the basic laws of movie appreciation. Do we care? Do we give one whit about the principals who are running from the wind? Well, the short answer is two letters long and it's not 'Ya!' Mark Wahlberg is a leading man with no baggage – a good thing. His character – a science teacher – is as bland as a piece of white bread. Not so good. There's not a moment in the film that allows you to connect with him nor with his clumsily guilty wife. Perhaps there's one (the 'sexy drugstore worker' story) but it's like an ice cube in a cup of tea. Regardless how cold the cube, it dissolves in an instant. And it's too little, way too late.

Zooey Deschanel made a convincing Tricia McMillan in the Hollywood version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy but here, as Wahlberg's wife, she's not given enough meat to gnaw on. She's a blank, eyes overacting as directed in tight situations. The cast is uniformly ill served by their story as the thin and basic narrative unspools. There is always an opportunity for an un-engaging film to redeem itself at the climax but guess what? In throwing his well earned 'twist' ending reputation to the deadly toxic winds, Shyamalan has sacrificed any redeeming features his windy feature may have salvaged. The film just ends with what must have seemed to him, a satisfying and cathartic emotional climax. It is neither. There is the trademark Shyamalan tearful confession (in Signs, it was an ex-preacher railing against his god at the suffering of his son). Here it is a shallow 'Remember when…' reminiscence.

It pains me to be subjectively honest about The Happening. I had considered starting the review with "My mother told me that if I didn't have anything nice to say about something, I should keep quiet," and then leaving it at that. But see it for yourself. It's the oddest and most unsatisfying film of Shyamalan's oeuvre and I predict unhappily that it will not set the box office alight. If it does, then audiences move in mysterious ways and I'll stand corrected on the merits of its commercial worth. But as a movie it is singularily unmoving, intermittently barely interesting and at the finale, it leaves a 'So what?' taste in the mouth. What happened to the director with an almost militaristic command of his frame, a director who seemed to display a satisfying control of character and incident? Shyamalan has cameo'ed in all of his movies save one. This is the one (executive inspired cuts?) and it's his most disappointing movie. I suspect a post-screening radical pruning because at 90 minutes, this is his shortest movie yet. Take those opinions as you will but be assured I wanted to love it. Alas.

The Happening

USA 2008
91 mins
M. Night Shyamalan
Barry Mendel
Sam Mercer
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
Tak Fujimoto
Conrad Buff IV
James Newton Howard
production design
Jeannine Claudia Oppewall
Mark Wahlberg
Zooey Deschanel
John Leguizamo
Ashlyn Sanchez
Betty Buckley
Spencer Breslin
Robert Bailey Jr.
review posted
13 June 2008