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THE HAPPENING (2008) * movie review by COOP

Posted on June 19th, 2008
Posted on June 19th, 2008

I’ve put my reputation on the line many times defending M. Night Shyamalan’s work. The twist in “The Sixth Sense” got me and I immediately doubt anyone who said they saw it coming. I consider “Unbreakable” an unsung masterpiece; although, many didn’t get it because they were expecting either a twisty thriller or a traditional superhero film. The one I argue about the most is “The Village.” I forgave its marketing trickery and embraced its hopeful yet tragic message. I even liked “Lady in the Water” as a sweet story of adults caught in a fairy tale. How can you not be amused at a movie that takes such an obvious jab at film critics, flustering them so much, with each review of the film sounding like a toddler throwing a tantrum?

However, after viewing “The Happening,” I simply can’t defend the guy anymore.

I got pretty mad at Shyamalan for “Signs.” I appreciated his message of renewing faith and his artful scare tactics. However, I couldn’t excuse the lack of logic behind the story (naked aliens without weapons invading a planet that’s 80% acid to them? C’mon…). Not to mention Mel Gibson’s character, who had the survival skills of a lemming. His sole strategy to protect his family from attacking aliens is to board up the windows, completely ignoring his shotgun that hangs on the wall the entire film.

“The Happening” makes “Signs” look like “Citizen Kane.” The story starts in NYC’s Central Park where everyone present inexplicably stops what they’re doing and commits suicide. Fearing the incident a terrorist attack, people begin evacuating major cities. Bickering couple, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma (Zooey Deschanel), get caught up in the hysteria and evacuate Philadelphia with friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They soon find they are blocked on all sides by the phenomena with no escape possible. Elliot, a high school science teacher, suddenly comes up with a loony idea for the cause of it all and races to find a safe haven for him, his wife and a few stragglers.

I got hold of an early draft of this script a year ago when it was still called “The Green Effect.” I read it, hated it and hoped that Shyamalan would clean up the mess. He didn’t and the changes he made to the final product were no better. At least the script had a theme of “peace and love conquers all” whereas the movie dumped it for the “we sure got lucky… this time!” theme.

Wahlberg, Deschanel and everyone else (save Ashlyn Sanchez) gave abysmal performances. Wahlberg played his wimpiest character to date while Deschanel only managed to bat her beautiful eyes and look frightened. I won’t blame all the film’s problems on them, but they did choose the project based on the script. I guess they put too much faith in writer/director Shyamalan to make art out of garbage.

People aren’t necessarily going to see this film for themes or performances. They want to be frightened, which is the one talent Shyamalan retained in “The Happening.” He created many shocking scenes of mass suicide that had me cringing and gasping (although I remember there were more brutal ones in the actual script). Through this element, he succeeded and that alone could generate ticket sales. “Signs” lack of logic didn’t keep the masses from going to see the scary aliens, resulting in the director’s most financially successful movie to date. There’s no predicting “The Happening’s” success, but I suspect if the film tanks, the day of the “Shyamalan vanity project” may swiftly come to a close. Three of his major five films bombed financially with his credibility quickly taking a nosedive.

I see the positive side of this. If Shyamalan’s legendary ego gets a reality check, he might reconsider those neat projects he passed up. I would like to see him adapt “The Life of Pi” to the screen like he once planned or maybe some independent pictures to get him back into the trenches. Word is his next vanity project is a trilogy; a live adaptation of the cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” If that’s true, I’m hoping for the reality check.

Little known fact:

His biggest insult to his fans was the fake documentary, “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shymalan,” released to promote “The Village.” This hoax showed evidence that Shyamalan could talk to the dead, had superpowers like the characters in his films and exerted a cult-like control over his actors. Rumor was that he tried to suppress the film “documentary” (not true), but the Sci-fi Channel beat him in court to air it. It was so phony, Sci-fi decided to come clean days before it aired to prevent angering fans. Too late. Even with Johnny Depp and Adrian Brody in on the act, the joke backfired and inflamed the backlash against Shyamalan. Luckily for him few saw it, sweeping the blunder under the rug, but if you want evidence of the director’s perceived arrogance, this is required viewing.

Rating: 1 out of 5

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