Movie: The Happening
Since his first mainstream success there’s been a (sixth?) sense that M.Night Shyamalan has struggled to live up to the notion that he is the new Spielberg, or even this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock. Personally, I feel that it is audiences who have struggled with that idea far more than Shyamalan himself.
Following the acclaimed psychological thriller, Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has explored the origin of a superhero, a science fiction / invasion film, told a story of control and paranoia, and a modern-day fairy tale. While all of these films come with a psychological aspect to them I can’t help but see his new film, THE HAPPENING, as the first time he’s returned to making a pure psychological thriller.
I’ve posted before about my aversion to ‘virus’ films. Something about the unseen, unstoppable threat presented by an airborne virus (or toxin, as the case may be) freaks me, as they say in the classics, the hell out! Ghosts, Zombies, Aliens, Vampires, Werewolves, Psycho’s with hooks for hands, Psycho’s with a knife, Psycho’s brandishing tickets to Speed Racer. All of these things can be dealt with using a baseball bat and a good follow through… Ok, maybe not the Ghosts. But with a virus, or a toxin… well, you’re just screwed.
The Happening earns its R rating within the opening moments of the film and in doing so discovers a whole new way to creep viewers out. It’s one thing to be lifting your feet in case there’s a killer under the seats, but what if the killer is you? What if the person you need to be afraid of, is yourself? What if you looked around the room right now and thought “how can I kill myself as quickly as possible?” and what if you couldn’t stop yourself?
Inexplicably people in New York’s Central Park become disoriented, lose control of their motor-functions and begin taking their own lives. A woman sitting on a park bench, showing no sign of emotion or pain, uses her own metal hair-pin to stab herself in the throat. When a police officer shoots himself in the head, a nearby figure walks over, picks up the officer’s gun and uses it to take their own life. The cycle continues as soon as the gun hits the ground again.
There are no creatures to run and hide from in The Happening, but for those whose self-preservation instinct hasn’t been flipped into reverse [yet!], the desire to get as far from these events as possible takes over. A mass exodus of New York, followed by the whole of the Northeast of the United States, begins.
Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) an analytically-thinking science teacher, his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), Elliot’s friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) flee Philadelphia by train, but soon find themselves in need of other transport. The infrastructure breaks down, panic ensues and people are left to fend for themselves or find someone to lead them. In the small group that finds themselves travelling together, the one they turn to is Elliot. But all Elliot has to keep them safe is cold, emotionless scientific reasoning.
Initially I felt that Shyamalan may have missed an opportunity to explore some of the ‘enemy-within’ territory that marked some of the greatest moments in the Stephen King’s THE MIST or even 28 DAYS LATER. Shyamalan does approach similar topics (without the religious overtones of The Mist), but uses them in a far more subtle way: The family held up in a house who refuse to help the people outside, the woman who screams to her husband to “just keep driving” as people scramble for a ride out of town, and the woman they meet towards the end of the film who clearly missed her bus to THE VILLAGE. Ultimately I think it would have felt too predictable to have gone any further along that route, and the thought probably never entered Shyamalan’s mind to do so.
This isn’t M.Night’s best work, but lets be fair, I don’t know of another director who could top this guy’s best. What this film is, is a classic psychological thriller more like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS than it is like any of Shyamalan’s other films. There’s no twist to The Happening, all the explanations needed are given throughout the course of the movie. The issue is whether or not you’re prepared to accept them in the context of the film – and if you aren’t, then you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re bothering to watch this, or any other, film in the first place. [source]