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The Happening

So two movies walk into a bar, and the bartender asks one of them, "So, what movie are you?" and it answers, "I'm Snakes on a Plane. I'm about some snakes on a plane, and I'm sort of silly and not even very good, which should be obvious from my name," and the bartender replies, "Mr, I respect your honesty; have one on the house." And then he asks the same of the second movie, and it says, very quietly, "I'm The Happening, and tells the bartender what it's about, and the bartender gets red-faced with indignation, and says, "If there's anything I can't stand, it's a movie with a two-faced, dishonest name!" and escorts the second film out of his establishment with a shotgun.

Sorry, did that joke have an awkward setup and no real payoff? Well, now you know what it's like to sit through The Happening, and it took you only about 0.5 percent of the time to experience it.

It's becoming harder and harder to believe that this man, this M. Night Shyamalan, once directed one of the most popular films ever. Looking at his more recent work, it seems implausible to a truly tremendous degree. But I tried to give this one a chance, despite the self-indulgent wank-off that was Lady in the Water. The film, by contrast, wasn't willing to meet me halfway. It had no interest in my viewing of it at all. It just sat there, inert, numb, and unaffecting. This, despite the fact that the film opens with a bizarre scene of apparently unmotivated mass suicide in New York City. The setup has all the earmarks of one of those '70s apocalypse dramas, only without the drama or much of an apocalypse. Normal, realistic human behavior having been tossed on the dung heap, this happening freaks out almost nobody. After surmising that the suicides were caused by some unknown neurotoxin, possibly as a result of a terrorist attack, the order comes to evacuate New York, which is done in the quiet, calm, dignified manner of a city that doesn't really know what "terrorist attack" even means; I've serious doubts one would ever see a NYC train station so calm on a normal day. Amongst those passively fleeing the horror are Elliot and Alma, he a highscool teacher of alleged science, she his...I think wife, but possibly just girlfriend. They seem to be having some sort of relationship issues which struck me as being especially whiny things to be blabbering about in the midst of mass death, and as they head out into the country seeking refuge from whatever's going on, they end up toting some useless child around for what appears to be no good reason whatsoever. I honestly don't remember this kid saying a single word or actually doing anything but following the principals around until the last two minutes of the film, where her amazingly unconvincing delivery of the phrase "I love you" left me wondering if she'd maybe had lots more dialogue that got chopped out to remove her stilted performance. Then I look at what Mark Wahlberg did as Elliot, and that theory gets shitcanned. His acting seems to be the cornerstone of a mission to eradicate the cool points he earned from his turn in The Departed. From the very beginning, he sounds outright stoned, and continues to sound that way throughout the whole film.

On reflection, perhaps he was supposed to sound stoned. Halfway through the film, a theory gets floated by some inbred idiot the likes which tend to dispense words of wisdom in Shyamalan flicks, which suggests that the plants have turned against humanity for all that logging and crap we do, and have produced some chemical intended to eliminate their enemies. I state this up front because it's not played as much of a twist, and it's possibly the only way of accounting for the fact that most of the characters wander around as if doped up on something, eventually running to escape gusts of presumed-poisonous wind, quite probably the most ridiculous plot event I've seen since a group of characters attempted to outrun the sunrise on foot in The Chronicles of Riddick. Elliot, Alma and Pointless Child-Shaped Appendage finally seek shelter with an old crazy woman somewhere out in the sticks, who casually and for no reason tells them about how the guest house has a pipe running to the main house to carry sound between them, so it can end up being used ten or so seconds later; it's annoyingly reminiscent of that superfluous flashback of the alien getting his fingers chopped off in Signs. (In fact, the entire lets-hide-in-the-basement-and-discuss-our-personal-baggage bit feels similarly recycled.) Around this point, all sense that something exciting will ever take place is finally given up for the speculation that perhaps the director his squirreled away all the potentially interesting developments for eventual use in The Happening 2: Something Happens.

But the dishwater-dull presentation aside, what about that message? I'll say this: I'm glad that it's actually become trendy to give a shit about the environment and our use of it. It's far better than the glorified shallowness of the '80s. Yes, global warming is taking place. It's measureable, and therefore factual. The long-term ramifications and our own possibly culpability are still topics of significant debate. What I won't support is a morality tale backed up by fake science written by a man with no respect for what science actually does. Early on, we see in Elliot's classroom a "quote" from Einstein about the deleterious effects of bee depopulation, which Einstein never said-the man was a physicist; his opinion on bees would've been worth about as much as my own. Later, the village idiot tells the, ahem, science teacher about how plants can react to emotions, and that it has been "proven in studies." It was indeed shown to be true in one very sloppy and badly-designed study, which was soundly refuted by actual scientists shortly thereafter. The facts notwithstanding, like all Shyamalan protagonists, the "educator," who already puts much stock in mood rings, embraces superstition above actual understanding, leading to an unintentionally hilarious scene of Mark Wahlberg attempting to engage a Ficus bush in reassuring conversation. A toxin that simply causes the exposed to seek their own destruction by any available means is so behaviorally nonspecific as to be laughable as a believeable concept, as is the idea that plants could evolve such a defense spontaneously, without weaker versions gradually appearing over many generations previously. But the biggest insult of all comes in the two similar bits of dialogue bookending this travesty, which both say essentially that "science will never understand what's happening; nature's just incomprehensible, and we should acknowledge that." No, science never can understand nature, which is why people still die of smallpox or diptheria. Apparently M. Night's solution to such problems as environmental decline is to throw up one's hands and say, "The world is such a big mystery...gee willikers, I'm just so humbled," glorifying ignorance over attempts to study and understand. If the human race has any huge obstacles to its survival that need overcoming, it's irrational horseshit like this; global warming can take a back seat in importance to this notion of sticking our collective heads up our asses in awe of the "great mystery."

I will, however, toss up my hands in concession that I will never understand the aggressiveness with which Shyamalan has attempted to flush away what once seemed a promising talent. People used to refer to the man as "the next Spielberg." Funny how no one says that anymore.

-review by Matt Murray

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