BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 13, 2008
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, The Happening, is not merely bad. It is an astonishment, so idiotic in conception and inept in execution that, after seeing it, one almost wonders whether it was real or imagined. It’s the kind of movie you want to laugh about with friends, swapping favorite moments of inanity: “Do you remember the part when Mark Wahlberg … ?” “God, yes. And what about that scene where the wind … ?”
The problem, of course, is that to have such a conversation, you’d normally have to see the movie, which I believe is an unreasonably high price to pay just to make fun of it. So rather than write a conventional review explaining why you should or shouldn’t see The Happening (trust me, you shouldn’t), I’m offering an alternative: A dozen and a half of the most mind-bendingly ridiculous elements of the film, which will enable you to marvel at its anti-genius without sacrificing (and I don’t use that term lightly) 90 minutes of your life. As this is intended to be an alternative to seeing the actual film it is, of course, overflowing with spoilers. Those who still intend to see the film despite my warnings should probably stop reading now; those looking for a more typical review should stop by www.rottentomatoes.com and take their pick. For the rest, onward:
1. The single most absurd element of The Happening, the wellspring from which all other absurdities flow, is its conceit: Across the Northeastern United States, people are succumbing to a toxic airborne agent that makes them commit suicide, often gruesomely. At first it hits major population centers, followed by smaller towns, and on down to groups of even just a handful of people. Initially, it’s assumed to be some kind of terrorist attack. But as we learn pretty early in the film, it’s not. It’s trees. Yes, the trees (and perhaps some bushes and grass, too, the movie’s never too clear on this point) have tired of humankind’s ecological despoilment and are emitting a complicated aerial neurotoxin that makes us kill ourselves en masse. I bet you wish you were the one who came up with this blockbuster idea.
2. A bad plot can be only so bad without a bad performance at the center of it, and star Mark Wahlberg delivers. As science teacher Elliot Moore, he is not merely unpersuasive, but dim, whiny, indecisive, and self-pitying. Given the amorphous nature of the threat--the villain, after all, is foliage--the movie needed its star to bring some energy, some empathy, some heroism, some something to the proceedings. Not happening. From the start, Wahlberg looks like he wants to tear off his sweater vest and launch into a Departed-style tirade of obscene invective that never comes.
3. John Leguizamo plays Julian, the Minority Best Friend, so it’s easy to guess what will become of him in a high-body-count movie. Less easy to guess is that, in the midst of this deadly crisis, he will dump his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) on Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, whose luminous blue orbs are the best thing in the film), in order to drive to another state looking for his own wife. This is especially odd given that Julian has made it clear that he dislikes Alma and wants to keep Jess away from her, and everyone in the film has made a point of very clearly enunciating that Elliot and Alma have serious problems in their marriage.
4. The biggest problem, it is ultimately revealed, is that Alma had a dessert date with a male colleague named “Joey,” who has since pestered her on her cell phone. At first it seems that “dessert” may be a euphemism, or was perhaps a prelude to a greater indiscretion. But no: This tiramisu was just tiramisu and, as such, a marital misdemeanor by most reckonings. That does not spare us from the tearful, guilt-ridden apology, however.
5. But enough about the boring interpersonal melodrama: On to the boring arboreal genocide! Each time the airborne toxin strikes, everyone ceases what they were doing and freezes in their tracks for a moment. It took several such episodes before I stopped anticipating that they’d commence tapping their feet in unison, as in the beginning of a big musical ensemble number.
6. Alas, there’s no singing. But the methods of suicide chosen often seem chosen for their entertainment value, in particular: the man who meticulously starts an industrial mower and then lies down in front of it; the woman who wanders around a house methodically smashing her head through windows until she embeds enough glass in her skull to keel over; and, of course, the zoo lion keeper who invites his charges to bite off his arms so he can stand around, Black Knight–like, spraying blood from the stumps.
7. Elliot, Alma, and Jess flee from Philadelphia to a series of smaller towns and ultimately the rural countryside. This makes sense in the movie’s nonsensical context--the nation’s trees are somehow “targeting” big cities first and then smaller and smaller populations. But it seems more than a little unhinged that our heroes’ response to the revelation that the trees are trying to kill them is to head into the forest.
8. Equally odd is their insistence, even though they’ve known from the beginning that the deadly nerve agent is airborne, on spending as much time as possible outdoors. When fleeing by car, they leave the windows rolled down; anytime they want to look at a map or discuss what to do next they get out of the car to do so. It never seems to occur to any of the protagonists that they should get inside somewhere and tape the windows and doors --even though this is the only strategy we’ve seen work for anyone else. Eighty minutes into a 90-minute movie, Alma and Jess are still sitting in a small guest house with all the doors and windows open. When Elliot, who’s just watched someone fall victim to the toxin nearby screams, “Close the windows and the doors!” Alma innocently inquires “Why?”
9. Since the threat driving the movie is a colorless agent in the air, Shyamalan has nothing, really, to dramatize visually. He solves this by showing a strong wind every time the deadly agent appears. There are two problems with this: No matter how biochemically sophisticated the trees have become, it seems rather unlikely that they’d be able to control the weather. And, insofar as wind could represent anything in the context of the movie, it would be hope, not danger, as strong winds would disperse the airborne toxin rather than, as Shyamalan somehow imagines, intensify it. Still, we gets leaves blowing every time people are going to die, and a hilarious scene where Elliot et al. are running across a field trying to outrace the wind. It’s like the climax of Twister, without the twister.
10. Speaking of wind, there’s a priceless meant-to-be-tragic scene in which a woman traveling with Elliot et al. is talking to her daughter on a cell phone and urging her to stay in her room. After we hear her kill herself, Elliot snatches the phone, listens, and reports somberly, “I hear wind from outside.”
11. Another scene (of many) notable for its unintentional hilarity: Well into the film, after Elliot’s group of survivors has dwindled to a handful and they’re urgently seeking food and shelter, they pause to let Jess play on a swing outside an (apparently) abandoned house. “Maybe that’s not such a good idea,” Elliot suggests. “I told her just for a minute,” replies Alma.
12. By this time, the group is made up of just Elliot, Alma, Jess, and two obnoxious teenagers who were introduced so offhandedly that I didn’t even catch their names. They’ve all realized that the trees are targeting smaller and smaller groups. At one point they even witnessed two tiny bands of people meet up, cross some population threshold and--wham--a gust of wind followed by mass suicide. So why don’t the Elliot trio and the anonymous teens split up to improve their chances of survival? Evidently it never occurs to them.
13. Either that, or the teens are along to provide Shyamalan fodder for another howlingly inept pseudo-tragedy. The apparently abandoned house (see #11) is not in fact abandoned, just closed up. (The inhabitants, unlike our protagonists, have had the sense to seal themselves indoors.) Elliot’s refugees beg for food, but the residents decline to give them any, leading the two teens to start banging on windows, kicking the door, and calling the inhabitants “pussies” (among other things) for what feels like an eternity. When the folks inside inevitably dispatch the boys with a shotgun, we’re meant to be shocked and appalled; I suspect most viewers, like me, will think, “Thank God that’s over.”
14. I could probably write an entire list based just on poor Betty Buckley’s character, a deranged shut-in with whom (of course!) Elliot, Alma, and Jess finally find quasi-refuge. But I’ll limit myself to Elliot’s discovery that she keeps a large, meticulously attired doll in her bed (message: She’s crazy!). However, rather than shrug and move on--he really does have more important things on his plate--Elliot slowly approaches the bed, captivated and appalled like an ingenue in a Victorian ghost story (dude, it’s just a doll), until Batty Betty shows up to shriek that he’s “stealing” from her and command that he take his family and leave.
15. Luckily, she’s dead within a few minutes. (She’s the one who kills herself by head-butting the windows.) Elliot closes himself inside the main house and Alma and Jess hole up in a guest house that’s connected to it by a “speaking tube” (don’t even get me started), so they can hear one another clearly as they wait to see whether the tree-toxin will penetrate their respective sanctuaries. But hearing isn’t enough for Elliot, who vows to brave the deadly air so that he can be “with” Alma. One envisions a (still foolhardy) sprint from one house to the other with breath held. Instead, Elliot ambles slowly out into the sunlight and stops. Alma, too, leaves possible safety to walk out casually and meet him in the middle, leading little Jess along by the hand. I mean, honestly: Have a romantic joint suicide if you must, but do you really have to kill the 8-year-old girl in the bargain?
16. But, hey, good news! No one dies at all. In the five minutes since Betty came in through the bathroom (and living room and kitchen) windows, the trees have stopped emitting their evil inhalants, almost exactly 24 hours after they began. The air is suddenly fine and all threat has passed. Why? Because it was an “act of nature,” the in-film experts helpfully explain. Thanks for clearing that up.
17. One of the things that is so remarkable about The Happening is how closely it apes everything that was lame or unseemly about Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (the crazy hermits, the paranormal genocide as an excuse for family reconciliation), while including nothing that was good in it (the remarkable design and effects, the sharp action sequences, the aliens). It even ends, like WotW, with the family glowingly united in a sunny suburb. Elliot and Alma have adopted Jess, who shows no sign of distress at the fact that her parents brutally offed themselves a few months earlier. And if this happy ending weren’t happy enough, Alma learns she’s pregnant! Thank goodness so much joy could come out of the violent deaths of millions of people.
18. Perhaps oddest of all, The Happening imagines itself to be a powerfully pro-environment movie. The snatches of televised commentary we see at the end of the film declare that this murderous act of nature was a warning; everyone seems to assume the obvious lesson to take is that we’d better treat nature nicer lest it decide to start wiping us out again. Allow me to suggest, contrarily, that if millions of Americans were killed by some tree-originated pathogen that could be released again at any time, the immediate result would not be a renewed enthusiasm for peaceful coexistence, but rather a program of deforestation so aggressive it’d make the Brazilian lumber industry look like tree huggers. If anyone were to take this film as seriously as it would like to be taken (and it’s hard to imagine anyone will), the clear imperative wouldn’t be to buy a Prius, but to chop down the red oak in the back yard. Because something like this could really happen. Really.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.