Review: THE HAPPENING

Posted by Peter Hall - June 14th 2008 @ 12:07 am

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 2008

Last week’s Science Friday on NPR featured an interview with M. Night regarding THE HAPPENING. It wasn’t a bad interview and Shyamalan was his usual enthusiastic self, that is until host Ira Flatow asked Shyamalan if he, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘liked the ending of his movie’. Shyamalan was offended, responding along the lines of, “Did you seriously just ask a filmmaker if he likes his own movie?”

Flatow apologized diplomatically and rephrased his question, though I don’t think he should have. Shyamalan deserves the scrutiny. He has been on a downwards spiral with critics and consumers alike, due in no small part to his endings. Fortunately for the director, the ending is not the problem with THE HAPPENING. The beginning, middle and end are uniformly problematic. Every frame of his rebound film is a blight on filmmaking. I wanted to like THE HAPPENING. I wanted to will myself to. An inexplicable occurence causes people to kill themselves? Shyamalan’s first R rated movie? Point to the dotted line, sir.

All that is for naught, however. THE HAPPENING is a shambled, shambling, shamed sham of a mess. I feel mournful writing such a negative review for a filmmaker who I, at one point in time, held in high esteem. THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS; all flicks that impress me in more ways than one. And then he went down the dreaded spiral until this, a possibly apocalyptic film to re-certify the filmmaker as a talent to be reckoned with. THE HAPPENING though…where to start with this dreadful mess?

I cannot fathom any deviating path Shyamalan could have taken to make a worse film out of THE HAPPENING. Not only is he stuck with a non-story to non-tell, but it as if the director has forgotten how to even make a movie. The yield is a half baked disaster that inspires nothing but discomfort towards the fellow. THE HAPPENING is a miscarriage, Shyamalan the crazy lady who bundles the corpse in a blanket and carries it around the hospital, convinced it is a real, functional, living being. It is not. THE HAP is dead on arrival. Nothing can resuscitate such miserable filmmaking. I feel for his family, friends and producers, those poor souls who have to look him in the eyes and surpress their “What in the fuck were you thinking?” outcries.

It opens as the trailer does. People first stop moving and then kill themselves. Mark Wahlberg is a science teacher concerned with the inexplicable disappearance of bees across the globe. Soon news of the NYC event spreads and science teacher Walhberg, coworker Leguizamo and wife Zoe Deschanel leave town. With comprehension still vague, the scale of the event spreads until it ultimately reaches the aforementioned survivors, who must then decipher the mystery to, well, survive like they’ve been doing.

The problems are immediate, however. The characters are as thin as Matzah bread and about as flavorful. So we have no one of interest to attach ourselves to. Shyamalan attempts to infuse his poor script with the broad humor that worked so well in, say, SIGNS. It does not however. The relief is as thought out as any comedy to be found on Christian TV network PAX. If that is your bag, swing away, but I require a little more than saying, “Cheese and Crackers!” instead of “Jesus Christ!”. Your movie is rated R for fuck’s sake, drop that F bomb.

Which leads to a second problem. This is Shyamalan’s first R rated film, but I fail to see why. The violence is minimal, the gore on par with that disappointment. The blood is abysmal CGI. Worst of all, there is no threat to the event. People get ‘infected’, stop what they are doing and then kill themselves. That’s straight; I dig it and the imagery possible is endless, BUT Shyamalan has no vision in the suicide department. Every point of expansion, every avenue of imagination is probed with the same exertion a fat goth kid uses playing dodgeball in gym class. It is not an issue of the director showing restraint so much as a blasting spotlight on his glaring inadequacy for this material. If you’ve seen the red band trailer of the film, you’ve seen every frame of its horror highs, which is a sad state considering I can hold my breath longer than it takes the trailer to unspool.

Sticking with the tangent of insufficenet vision, this is Shyamalan’s ugliest film to date. The man must talk a great game, as he managed to bag the magnificent Christopher Doyle for LADY IN THE WATER, but Tak Fujimoto‘s work here is phoned in. Long distance. The widescreen film often looks as if it was framed for a 4:3 presentation, which is off putting for any audience member who has an eye for such a trait. And if you are reading this site, I am confident you do. Gone are the iconic shots of SIGNS and UNBREAKABLE, present are 91 minutes of amateur-at-best photography.

All performances are flaccid. Proven actors are given zero material to work with, the only member who manages to sift himself to the top is John Leguizamo in a bit part as a math teacher more interesting than all of the film’s main protagonists combined. There is a moment in THE HAPPENING that rivals TROLL 2, I shit you negative. When the shotgun scene happens, I defy you to not think of, “Ohhhhh…..My…….Gosssshhhh!!!!!” James Newton Howard’s score is listless to boot.

The cause of the conflict is apparent from scene two, at least to anyone who has read Michael Crichton. The former (in my youth) fav author of mine wrote an extensive section in THE LOST WORLD on the very mechanism cited here. Coincidently enough, in that same Science Friday interview, Shyamalan mentioned Crichton’s brand of extrapolating fiction from fact as one of THE HAPPENING’S resident influences. If only his take on the brand bore a fraction of the energy of even the weakest Crichton science yarns.

There is no immediacy to his story, either. Okay, “it”, whatever “it” is, happens and you kill yourself. How is that threatening? Shyamalan does not present his victims as resistant. They snap and then calmly (and tamely) kill themselves and themselves alone, creating a scene of harmony with the world. The characters we are supposed to care about, though we do not due to their unlevaend breadness, are never placed in palpable danger. The infected pose no threat to them. The only variable is ‘when’ they punch their own ticket, which is not an unsettling prospect in and of itself; especially since Shyamalan paints his red in such safe strokes.

THE HAPPENING is a failure. No hesitation, no afterthought, no justification can remedy this verdict. It flat does not work. No matter how insistent he is as the father, no one will believe THE HAP ever used its own lungs to breath. Trite and boring to any individual whose own imagination works harder and faster than Shyamalan’s did making his movie. A most unremarkable occurrence, THE HAPPENING is a cadaver of a film so inept its bankruptcy of life reaches staggering altitudes.

I’ll spend days wondering aloud to anyone who will listen as to how exactly a film of such deficiency could ever find its way out of a projector. Blacklist this bomb from your mind.


rss 16 comments
  1. matt w
    June 14th, 2008 | 8:32 am | #1

    I kinda wanted to see this. I really did. I think it is because my trailer experience has been peppered with Zohan and Love Guru, this just looked like Citizen Kane in comparison.

    I still might be dumb enough to see it, even though every review I have read says it sucks except for a friend who loved it, but he also loves every single horror movie he sees. But, it looks better than Signs, but that’s not saying much. Is it better than Signs?

    Please tell me it’s better than that god awful movie with one of the worst and nonsensical and illogical plots/twists/plot twists I’ve ever seen! PLEASE tell me it’s better!!!

  2. June 14th, 2008 | 10:10 am | #2

    No, it is not better than SIGNS. Not even close. Even if you hate that flick with a passion, you’ll find no ground to think THE HAPPENING is better.

    I personally am a big fan of SIGNS. I think it has a ton of elegant shots, a few great performances, an excellent score and just a fun, smart script. I don’t get all the water hate, really.

  3. Sean
    June 14th, 2008 | 1:11 pm | #3

    I always remind myself to suspend belief when I watch horror movies: none of them are really likely to occur. So the whole “How do they walk around when the atmosphere has water in it” bit doesn’t bother me as much as, for instance, Cloverfield’s camera having nightvision suddenly.

  4. June 14th, 2008 | 1:13 pm | #4

    Aye, Signs is one of my all-time favorites though behind Unbreakable), and I think most of the complaints about it are easily explained away.

    Anyway, I have to see this film, regardless of how bad it may be. Night’s first three major efforts just built up too much good will…I’m gonna keep going back to him for another punch in the face with the faint hope that one day he’ll stop punching me and start giving me candy again.

  5. Sean
    June 14th, 2008 | 3:49 pm | #5

    Don’t! Maybe if he doesn’t make any money off this, he’ll think “Maybe I should go back to doing movies with talent rather than my name.”

  6. Sean
    June 14th, 2008 | 4:25 pm | #6

    …Chris, is the ending really what they’re saying?

    Is the pandemic on this earth, but not human, if you know what i mean.

    Please tell me that they were just making a bad joke.

  7. June 15th, 2008 | 1:17 am | #7

    Saw the flick today. I sure as hell didn’t like it, but I didn’t think it was horrible. At least, significant portions of it were not horrible.

    I think it’s a below-medicore film that seems a lot worse because of a) high expectations and b) a marketing effort which telegraphed all the cool death scenes for us in advance.

    Don’t! Maybe if he doesn’t make any money off this, he’ll think “Maybe I should go back to doing movies with talent rather than my name.”

    Possible, but I think it’s just as likely that people stop giving him chances. I’m not sure which makes a resurgence in quality more likely…

    …Chris, is the ending really what they’re saying?

    Is the pandemic on this earth, but not human, if you know what i mean.

    Assuming I’m understanding you correctly: yes, it’s true. Pretty goofy, but I knew it going in and expected it to be WAY goofier. Attempts are made to explain things in a sorta-kinda plausible manner, though the way it’s done is ridiculously crude.

  8. June 15th, 2008 | 10:23 am | #8

    I’ve gotta disagree, Chris. I think there is a point where you pass mediocrity and head straight to terrible land – and Shyamalan was heading there like a bullet. You can blame expectations (though in fairness, my expectations were low; it was my hopes that those expectations were wrong that was high) and marketing if you want, but I don’t think seeing it with a clean slate would have been any better, either.

    THE HAPPENING is just a hollow failure.

  9. June 15th, 2008 | 1:48 pm | #9

    Okay, but surely you must have thought that, for example: the movie opened strong, the deaths were inventive, and they would’ve seemed more shocking if we didn’t know about all of them already. And also, that the film started to feel a lot more like an M. Night film during the sequence in Mrs. Jones’ house. I think I might have even LIKED that part of the movie.

    But don’t get me wrong; it was still a big disappointment, and a huge missed opportunity for Night. I thought the exposition was hackneyed and crude, and the dialogue sounded like it was pulled from a first draft.

    And I think you’re right about the nature of the “infected.” There’s a real fundamental disconnect between the harm and its source, that means the audience isn’t scared for the characters, but only of seeing them do something gross to themselves. It may be tense, but it’s not actually scary.

  10. June 15th, 2008 | 2:09 pm | #10

    Still gotta disagree. I don’t even think that it opened strong. The concept of people freezing is great, but Night even failed to bring that to fruition. He sets it up nice, the one girl unaffected is our proxy to the bizarre situation, but even she has practically zero reaction. If we are supposed to give a damn, the fake people on the screen need to give even more of a damn. When the blond sticks a needle in her neck, her friend might as well of cracked open a kids book.

    The construction site sequence was the best of the lot, I’ll give him that. It had weight to it and finally (I say finally, even though it was minutes) feels like an actual threat is appearing, that there is cause and effect to The Hap, but it is over and done with too soon.

    I thought the old woman’s house was a joke, as if Night took the most complained about part of WAR OF THE WORLDS (though I actually like the Tim Robbins bit) and toiled over how to make a more grating sequence.

    For me the only sequence that worked towards creating any lasting moment was the crossroads one in which all the cars converge and they finally realize they’re done. Except even then Shyamalan came up short, arriving at the set up and doing nothing else to improve it past its base.

  11. June 15th, 2008 | 2:38 pm | #11

    That’s a good point, about people’s reactions. I think that’s one of the reasons the construction site sequence worked; the guy’s reaction made the whole thing. So I’d agree…people should have been a bit more freaked out.

    Surprised you didn’t like the Mrs. Jones stuff. It was a little cliche, and there’s a lot I’d change about it, but it felt more…I guess confident is the word I’d go with.

    Totally agree about the crossroads. That was a great concept that just didn’t have enough payoff.

    By the by, I’ve got a copy of one of the earlier drafts of the script. You may have read it already, but if not, let me know and I’ll send you a copy. I’m about a fourth of the way through it and so far, I think it’s better than what ended up on screen.

  12. June 15th, 2008 | 10:21 pm | #12

    Yeah, shoot on over. I’ll give it a gander. I remember AICN mentioning a year or two ago that they’d gotten their hands on an early draft of the script and that it was tremendous.

  13. June 16th, 2008 | 12:07 pm | #13

    Couldn’t agree more. What an utter debacle.

  14. Annushka Valkovich
    June 25th, 2008 | 12:36 am | #14

    I have still to see this. I think I’ll go this weekend.

  15. R.J. Sayer
    June 25th, 2008 | 4:54 am | #15

    uhm… did you NOT read the review?

  16. June 27th, 2008 | 3:50 pm | #16

    HA. Slayed it, as usual. I have decided to skip this one until it hits DVD, and even then, only as a netflix rental…

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