Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Be Scientifc Douchebag (The Happening)

Dir: M Night
Viewed from: The Bed

Maybe M Night Shyamalan pictures work better on the small screen. Bored with work and ill from viewing too many baseball stories, I took a flier on The Happening on my computer. And I liked it. Weird. Very Weird.

The Happening is in no way a quality movie in the sense of meaningful characters, intriguing intellectual arguments, or even entertainment. I would hesitate to even say I enjoyed it, but I did stay still for most of the time and felt, for a quick two hours, that I was really inside the movie. Any movie that limits the amount of times where the viewer is thinking "hey, I'm watching a movie" counts a success for me.

The plot is a fairly straightforward apocalypse plot, one of the most tried and true, from Camus and The Plague to Steven King in The Stand, to Jose Saramango in Blindness, and most recently Cormac McCarthy in The Road (hey, at least M Night got beyond two syllables!). Unlike these last two, however, the gradual destruction of mankind doesn't carry with it any existential themes or interesting metaphors; just an incredibly shallow investigation of environmental destruction and SCIENCE. More interesting than the idea that plants want to kill people (not a spoiler), or the elusive nature of scientific methodology, however, is Shyamalan's seeming misanthropy, where the lives of everyone are put in danger the more they are around other people. I suppose you could even make a case for this being a Sartrean allegory of the hell of other people, but I doubt he had No Exit by his side as he wrote the script. (In fact, I can't quite recall any of the Existentialist dramatists having characters chastise themselves to "Be scientific douchebag" at crucial moments of the story)

But it isn't the plot that matters, rather the surprisingly genuine affection you have for the characters. Star Mark Wahlberg's barely goes beyond an "aw-shucks" character out of a Steinbeck novel, Zooeoooeooey Deschanel is just nuts, and the little girl is basically mute, but somehow you really care about them (John Leguizamo almost brings a tear to you eye). The movie is also helped along by nice touches, such as the dead-on Philly burb accent by a few homicidal shut-ins and a clever idea involving an old hideout on the Underground Railroad. These never go beyond nice touches (or convenient plot points), but I still appreciated the cleverness involved. (Less clever is setting one scene in a model real estate house for no apparent reason other than the director possibly watching too much Arrested Development).

Beyond cleverness, The Happening transcends its monochrome ideological palate because of one thing: voice. Voice is usually applied to writers, but in the case of Shyamalan, I think it's his greatest strength. I've only seen The Happening and The Sixth Sense, but the man clearly can establish a consistent visual mood and stick to it. His ideas may be dull, and the narrative invented as the movie goes along, but Shyamalan is a remarkably consistent visual director. By keeping the same tone and style throughout, he never lets you escape his vision, uninteresting as it is.


Sean said...

Oh, I get it: Be Scientific, Douchebag. I was like, what's a Scientific Douchebag? Is it a mantra? A Douchebag 3000(tm)? Some of the reviews have been pretty harsh on The Happening. But then again I never really liked Shyamalan outside of Unbreakable and 75% of Signs. I think he'd be the first to admit that he's in the mold of Speilberg as far as director molds go. But his problem is that he's late-period Speilberg -- such a good visual storyteller but now to the detriment of the rest of the movie. I'll definitely catch this one on DVD -- some of the reactions have been so negative as to pique my curiosity and it doesn't sound nearly as bad plot/theme-wise as Lady in the Water or The Village.

Sean said...

The Love Guru has a 23 on metacritic (some of the most hilarious mainstream reviews I think I'll read all year) -- The Happening has a 34. I'm positive that The Happening is a much much better film... right?

Padraic said...

Well, Rottentomatoes has it Love Guru 15% to Happening 19%. I'm about to go find out what the Love Guru is.

Not good. I can see why a reviewer wouldn't recommend it, but The Happening doesn't do either of the two things that make a movie truly awful: 1) be manipulative and just have characters acting in ways that are false or 2) be so damn earnest and serious on a project that doesn't work. I'd say 88 Minutes was an example of the former, something like The Farmer Astronaut the latter.

Maybe its Shyamalan's deep deep pessimism that attracted me to the movie more than a Speilbergian work, because even Senor surpasses M Night when it comes to ideas.