Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan's career as a film auteur has had its ups and downs. Sixth Sense became an instant classic, and its trademark "twist ending" made Shyamalan a filmmaking powerhouse. Unbreakable was very good, but less successful than it deserved. His career seems to have peaked with Signs, so people eagerly flocked to see The Village and went away puzzled. It had its points, but it wasn't quite up to snuff; it revealed many of its writer-producer-director's mannerisms to a fatal degree. Lady in the Water was such an unqualified disaster that it seemed likely to end Shyamalan's career. But now he has come back with The Happening, a film that builds on the same techniques and themes as his earlier films and, though imperfect, perhaps redeems his recent missteps.

Let's review his past work for a moment and point out those themes. First, obviously, The Happening ends with a twist, like most of his movies so far. It really shouldn't be a surprise; Shyamalan sets it up so well that you expect it, and frankly, it would be hard to bring this story to any sort of close without a "surprise twist." Besides, Shyamalan didn't invent this gimmick. It has been a stock-in-trade of creepy movies since way back.

Second, his script zooms in on a handful of ordinary people trying to deal with an extraordinary event that effects the world, or at least a major part of it. In this respect it is most reminiscent of Signs, in which a massive invasion by extraterrestrial aliens is viewed from the point of view of one family on an isolated, Pennsylvania farm. These people aren't rich, or powerful, or superior in any way from the average family, the people who live down the street from you. Instead of a soapy depiction of people whose lives you envy and wish to live vicariously - people who live in huge, palatial homes and have endless leisure time - we see ourselves, our own lives, reflected in these characters. And consequently, the dialogue they speak is very ordinary, like words any one of us might come up with off the top of his head. This brings the strangeness and terror of the situation - e.g. an alien invasion - right into our own living room, forces us to put ourselves in the place of the characters on the screen.

Shyamalan's other movies share this tendency, to some degree. The mother and her little boy who sees dead people in Sixth Sense, the family of the man who learns that he is Unbreakable, and many of the residents of the apartment building featured in Lady in the Water, have this "could be somebody you know"-ness about them.

Third, the greater part of the unnerving effect of these movies is played by what you don't see, or what you only vaguely and briefly glimpse. The aliens in Signs are most terrifying when you can only hear them, or see the motion of objects they have touched in passing. Perhaps the fear "spikes" when you catch a glimpse of an alien's leg as it turns to walk away, or when its claw reaches under a pantry door, or when you see something indescribable caught on a blurry, grainy home video. But between those spikes, Shyamalan maintains an atmosphere of nearly unbearable tension merely by suggesting the presence of creatures we see only briefly, near the end of the film. He undertakes a similar campaign of terror-by-suggestion with the wolves in Lady in the Water, "those we do not speak of" in The Village, and to some degree even the ghosts in Signs.

Fourth, Shyamalan thrills and chills us by bringing concepts from fantasy, folklore, and comic books into that realistic world inhabited by Joe Everybody. First it was ghosts, then a superhero and his evil nemesis, then invaders from outer space; then even weirder concepts, as his efforts became less successful. We couldn't quite sympathize with the villagers, who created their own mythical monster to enforce the isolation of their village; and as for the baroque mythology he dreamed up for Lady in the Water, it lost us at hello. We were more inclined to be frightened by the villagers themselves in The Village. When the subsequent movie was entirely based on a scenario so daft as to suggest a kind of mental derangement, all bets were off; we could trust no one, sympathize with no one.

So in his sixth Hollywood venture, Shyamalan has taken a huge risk in carrying this last element of his art another step further. The scenario has to do with plants, throughout a region of the United States, conspiring to neutralize the threat of mankind by giving off an airborne neurotoxin that causes people to commit suicide. It is almost insufferably silly. But it is the kind of goofiness that our culture is prepared to accept, after swallowing the gospel of "global warming" and worldwide environmental disaster peddled by folks like Al Gore. It is, to put it more briefly, a fantasy that appeals to the present mood. It's a simple enough concept, explained with a sufficient lack of detail, to raise goosebumps on anyone who doesn't care to think too deeply about it; which is to say, right on target for movie audiences.

And it has powerhouse potential to generate chest-tightening horror, because the people in the movie are thereby forced to run from a monster they cannot see, smell, hear, feel, or fight. Once it catches them, they're dead. It's completely invisible, but it's caused by the grass and trees that surround them on all sides, and there's no escaping once it comes for you. The best you can do is look out for groups of people standing still (a prelude to suicidal behavior) or lying dead on the ground; and then move off in a different direction, as long as there is still somewhere for you to go. The film follows one group of survivors out in the unpopulated hinterland of Pennsylvania, who walk off the road (because all roads lead to affected areas) and then split up into smaller and smaller groups as the "event" becomes more sensitive and attacks groups of fewer people at a time. You finally come down, not unexpectedly, to three characters - a not-quite-happily married couple and the daughter of the husband's best friend - who realize that they're completely screwed...and then the movie ends, first with anticlimactic relief, then with a quick "twist."

The couple are played with appropriate anguish by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Young Ashlyn Sanchez, who boasts quite a few credits for such a little girl, plays the girl whose father (John Leguizamo) leaves her in their care. Other actors involved in "The Happening" include Spencer Breslin (best known for roles in the Santa Clause films), Alan Ruck (who still can't live down his career high-point as Ferris Bueller's sidekick), Betty Buckley (whom you may not recognize as the mother from "Eight Is Enough," she is so scary in this film). The actors who play the greenhouse owner and his wife may seem familiar to you; their names are Frank Collison and Victoria Clark. And of course, the director makes his usual cameo, though in this outing he only appears as a voice on Deschanel's cell phone. It is a decent cast that, for all its lack of star power, delivers more than you would expect in a story about a high school science teacher, his nearly estranged wife, and his buddy's orphaned daughter running around in the wilds of central Pennsylvania, "in over their heads" and yet determined to survive a bizarre and deadly "happening" of some 24 hours' duration. If you think it sounds silly, try it out for a laugh. Then tell me whether or not you found yourself holding your breath at the climax when the last survivors walk toward each other across a windblown field, expecting the worst from the grass and trees all around them.

No comments: