Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

Central Park, New York, just after 9 o'clock on a Tuesday morning. People in the park stop moving, workers on a building site fall to their deaths, and all sorts of mysterious events occur. The occurrence is initially believed to be a terrorist attack and, fearing further attacks, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) decide to leave their home city of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the occurrence does not seem to be restricted to New York, and the group quickly find themselves stranded, with an unknown threat lying around every corner.

Now, before we get into the meat of what's wrong with The Happening, I'll say right now that it is nowhere near as bad as the reviews would have you believe (currently at a not so healthy 19% on Rottentomatoes). Don't get me wrong, it is severely flawed and there are many awful moments in it, but it's also a very ambitious horror film, though we'll leave that aspect aside for the moment, and I found myself liking it a lot more than I thought I would. Needless to say, it's a film which does not deserve the ignominy that has been heaped upon it.

I like M. Night Shyamalan. I think he's a hugely talented director in purely technical terms, there's few mainstream Hollywood directors who can provide jumps and thrills with nothing but a camera and a well-timed edit as well as he can, but his technical abilities behind the camera sometimes exceed his skills behind the typewriter, something which sadly impacts upon The Happening and its where most of its problems stem from. The dialogue is often stilted, leaving the actors flailing around trying to make it work and, to their credit, they just about manage, though Zooey Deschanel does spend most of the film displaying the emotional range of a broken plate.

The film also suffers from terrible pacing, veering ungainly from moments of creeping, scintillating tension and horror to moments of dull, uninspired expositionary dialogue. Even the exposition isn't particularly well handled, spread unevenly as it is throughout the film so that, to paraphrase a line from the film itself, we are given useless bits of information one piece at a time (I'd like to think that this is an example of witty self-reflexivity on the part of Shyamalan, though I can't really be certain). It's not completely hopeless, though, as there are a few laughs to be had, including one moment which may be the funniest thing I've seen this year, but its clear that the film could have been improved hugely if someone else had done a much needed bit of script doctoring.

Crucially, the film fails to really engage with its, potentially interesting, central conceit, one which I won't spoil for anyone who has managed to avoid it. Most of the characters don't believe the explanation offered, as is only to be expected, but its almost as if Shyamalan doesn't really believe it either, so it's kind of hard to get behind it. Having said that, I was won over by the film in the end regarding the cause of the happening, but it was hard work getting there.

Fortunately, though, there's enough good stuff to compensate for the weak writing, even if it can never overcome that debilitating affliction. Firstly, the direction is superb; Shyamalan ekes plenty of scares from the smallest moments (one involving a bed and a doll made me leap out of my seat, even though I could see it coming) and some of the deaths are very well staged, even if they aren't as bloody as you might expect, given the emphasis the marketing has placed on the gore factor of the film. It's also a great credit to Shyamalan that he makes the scenes in which the threat menaces the main characters into tense set-pieces, even if there's nothing for us to see.

This last factor is what I like best about the film; it has no clear, definite threat for the characters to face, it's all about an unseen menace that can come at any time and wreak havoc. This rather esoteric form of horror, and the success with which the film manages to carry it off, is probably the greatest strength of the film, as well as its tremendous ambition and the ability with which it confronts, subverts and abandons some of the stock conventions of horror movies. Here we have a horror film which takes place entirely in daylight, one which also takes place predominantly outside in wide, open space, and in which the only safe havens characters encounter are creepy houses that would usually be occupied by serial killer types. All credit needs to be given to those involved for taking this approach, even if the final result is not as cohesive as it needs to be and the writing still undermines a lot of what the film does right.

It should also be noted that The Happening is a film which tries to address the possibility of the end of humanity, not through war, nuclear apocalypse or the other usual apocalyptic tropes, but by a freak act of nature. That it tries this within the confines of a horror film is nothing short of commendable.

However, as much as I liked The Happening, it would be remiss of me not to mention the final ten minutes, ten minutes which came very close to destroying my good opinion of the film. There is a moment during the last ten minutes in which a short exchange between two characters delivers up one of the most sanctimonious moments I've seen in any film. It's so condescending that Shyamalan could not talk down to the audience more if he reached through the screen, grabbed them by the ears and screamed ''HEY, THIS HAS RELEVANCE TO MODERN DAY CONCERNS!'' I mean, the rest of the film isn't the most subtle piece of pro-environmental propaganda ever, but the ending really takes the biscuit. It didn't completely destroy the good will I had built up over the preceding 80-odd minutes, but it did break the spell that it had managed to cast over me.

So, it's not great, but neither is it the complete disaster that everyone seems to want it to be. I went along expecting a fairly good eco-thriller and that's what I got. The various elements of it don't hold together, mainly due to some rather shoddy writing, but all in all it's a creepy, entertaining film that tries to do something different with horror conventions and, for the most part, succeeds. If you can forgive its failings; the writing, the forced performances (something which seems to be intentional, though I can't quite determine what aim they serve) and the messiness of the story, then you'll be able to enjoy a solid, thoughtful horror film, even if its brains are firmly implanted in its arse some of the time.