June 19, 2008

Movie Review: The Happening

To say that I had a little in the way of expectations for The Happening would be an understatement. M. Night Shyamalan is a very talented director whose writing skills have become suspect over his past few films. In 1999 he burst onto the scene with the phenomenon that was The Sixth Sense, that was followed by the even better (in my opinion) Unbreakable, he then suffered a bit of a dip with the good Signs, but since then he has been in decline with The Village and Lady in the Water.

Now we have a film with a horrendous title and an even worse tag line. It seems like whoever designs these promotional campaigns cannot get away from trading on past success. Yes, I understand it is the nature of the beast, the old "what have you done for me lately?" belief. Still, could you not come up with a tag better than: "We've Sensed It. We've Seen the Signs. Now.... It's Happening."? Seriously, that is just an awful line. If that isn't enough, another focus of the television commercials is the fact that this is Shyamalan's first R-rated film. I got the feeling that this is was being set up as a scapegoat if the film flopped at the box-office.

So, with the expectations suitably in check, I entered the theater hoping for the best and expecting the worst. The trailers played, and there I sat wanting this to be the film to get M. Night Shyamalan's considerable talent back on track. The film started, the credits began to role, the screen filled with blue sky, clouds, and the emanating from the speakers were the first notes of another winning score from James Newton Howard. So far, so good.

The Happening is something of a self-contained oddity within this summer blockbuster season. With it, M. Night takes a quieter, more introspective approach to the material, allowing it to flow of its own accord. The story does not get pushed around by special effects and is driven in a much more naturalistic fashion than, to pick another disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow, which is more about the whiz bang than it is about subtle character moments.

Not much happens (sic) in The Happening. One morning, in Central Park, people suddenly become disoriented, begin to act oddly, and, without warning, commit suicide. Before long, these, for lack of a better word, symptoms spread outward from that point. They also begin to pop up in other city parks, always spreading out until much of the Northeast is being affected. Newscasts place blame on terrorists, although there are other theories. However, nothing moves beyond that stage of theory.

That covers the impetus for this cautionary tale. At the center of it is Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg). When he learns of what has happened in New York, he, along with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend and fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizama), and his young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), hop a train to Harrisburg, PA. The recommendation of the newscasters is to get away from the city.

The train strands them in some miniscule Pennsylvania town when they lose contact with "everyone." At this point Julian leaves Jess in the care of Elliot and Alma, while he catches a ride with some folks as he goes off to find his wife. Elliot, Alma, and Jess catch a ride with a kindly, but eccentric, couple that rattle off a theory that plants are behind this. Soon enough the core trio is with another group of people attempting to stay ahead of the rapidly spreading "happening" (this word is uttered many, many times before the film is over). Before long, they have encounter with an old woman, Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), where more things happen.

It is hard to say more than "things happen." To even attempt to do so would be to spell out exactly what does happen, and that is something that need not be done, lest the entire film experience be rendered moot. This film is interesting, it offers up a variety of possible interpretations. There is a strong undercurrent of environmental thinking, personal responsibility, and interpersonal relations that weave into the current that flows beneath surface of the portrayed events. I found myself drawn in and taken with said current as we follow the lives of these people that have been uprooted so easily.

I believe the performances are quite good. From top to bottom, I enjoyed their work. Is it terribly realistic? Yes and no. I believe the way they act and get from place to place has a very real and organic flow, however a lot of the dialogue is odd and unintentionally comical. This is a separate issue than their ability to deliver it. The delivery is good and I like the way it came across, what I didn't really care for was the words themselves. The screenplay is not the strongest point and could have used another pass, perhaps by someone other than M. Night.

The direction is solid. I like many of the choices made for angles and where to cut. It is not that I would know better, I most certainly would not, but there is a distinct look to the film, a style, a visual flair that communicates that this is definitely a Shyamalan film.

Is this a film everyone will like? No, what film is? It will definitely divide audiences, and it has nothing to do with who "gets it" and who doesn't. It is a simple fact that for some, including me, this is an interesting, introspective film that delivers a positive experiece, while others will find it shallow, empty, and devoid of meaning. This doesn't even touch on those that will be lukewarm to it.

Bottomline. This is a good movie. It tells me that M. Night has not completely lost it and is moving in the right direction. If nothing else, he is a filmmaker who is not afraid of making films that do not appeal to everyone, they do not pander to the lowest common denominator. Whether he is successful in what he is attempting is a separate issue. With The Happening we are given an intriguing film that is left for interpretation while offering as much as you want to take from it.



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