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If You Like Apocalypse Flicks, You Might Like Shyamalan's 'The Happening'

M. Night Shyamalan's latest film is about an airborne mystery toxin that causes people to kill themselves -- and it's not bad.
 
 
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Whether or not you'll like The Happening might very well depend on how much you like apocalyptic scenarios in your movies. I love 'em, myself. Show me an ad for a lurid doomsday flick and I want to be there opening day, right down front. Zombies are a plus, but I'll also take nuclear blasts, creatures from outer space, assorted plagues, deranged killer birds, giant ants, hordes of vampires -- whatever the kids are into these days is OK with me. I consider it one of the oddly cheering benefits of modernity, contemplating humanity's destruction in entertainment form and saying, "Ha!" before I resume my regular fretting.

So I probably enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's latest variation more than most will. He's dreamed up an airborne mystery toxin that causes people to kill themselves by the handiest available means. His ace cinematographer Tak Fujimori provides a beautiful shot stream of construction workers casually stepping off buildings and cooperative chains of suicides by handgun.

All this inventive death on display has earned the film an R rating, and there's been a lot of publicity about Shyamalan's climbing out of the PG-13 kiddie pool. It's part of a big PR attempt to revive the writer-director-producer's reputation after his dizzying career swan-dive from the heights of The Sixth Sense in 1999, plummeting down through Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village to the depths of Lady in the Water in 2006. This film isn't likely to do the trick. It's got a great premise, but then, Shyamalan's a one-man premise factory. He should've been a staff writer for the old Twilight Zone , with plenty of oversight by tough TV brass and no chance whatsoever of becoming an auteur. It's erratic execution that bedevils Shyamalan, who routinely pulls off a terrific scene or effect followed by the lamest one you've ever seen in your life. (I think we can all agree by now that The Sixth Sense was an amazing fluke and the planets are not likely to align themselves that way again.) Unfortunately, he once again trips all over himself trying to fill out the details of his vision. For every gorgeous shot of Central Park full of people standing like statues as the impulse toward self-destruction begins, you've got to sit through a whole lot of bad plot. As the great film critic Joe Bob Briggs used to say, "Way too much plot getting in the way of the story."

Shyamalan has come up with a half-baked batch of characters struggling to survive: an earnest high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his flakey wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his bespectacled teaching colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's small daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). The Moores are having minor marital troubles and the daughter suffers from shyness, or something. These rote personal problems are a convention by now in this kind of movie. Characters dealing with a code-red crisis are implausibly distracted by their own petty difficulties, until the A and B plotlines suddenly dovetail at the end-see, by solving the personal problems you deal with the code-red crisis! Shyamalan has taken this formula to unintentionally hilarious extremes in the past. Remember the ex-baseball player in Signs who fights the aliens by recovering his swing? This time around, our overreaching auteur creates an even more surreal effect by reducing the characters' personal problems to hangnail-insignificance but allowing them just as much screen time as ever.

Plus he directs his actors to give such aggressive interpretations of "regular people" that they seem insane half the time. Deschanel in particular should demand an explanation from her director as to what he thought he was doing, shooting her repeatedly in loony close-up with mouth open and eyes as wide as blue saucers. (We can speculate that she feeds his own particular obsession with young, pale, spacey girls, which is the only possible explanation for two starring roles in a row, in The Village and Lady in the Water , for the anemic Bryce Dallas Howard.) Her twitchy performance is the most pitiful spectacle in the film, but Wahlberg and Leguizamo are also showing the strain. Wahlberg copes by trying to do less, focusing his eyes intently and saying his lines straightforwardly, limiting the director's ability to make him look like a total goon. Leguizamo goes for the opposite effect of looking as goony as he can, sweating and squinting and shlemieling all over the place.

Some of these campy effects are clearly intentional. Shyamalan has talked about his ambition to make a "B-movie," a throwback to those wonderfully punchy genre films of Hollywood's classic era, especially the paranoid sci-fi/horror chillers of the 1950s like Invaders From Mars , The Incredible Shrinking Man , and Them! We can see traces of this inheritance in The Happening 's blessedly short running time (a little over 90 minutes), its immediate plunge into mayhem, its unsparing end-of-the-world terrors, and the sheer weirdness of the acting. But sadly, you can't rip the bizarre behavior patterns of the 1950s performance style out of the 1950s milieu and carry on regardless. In the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers , for example, when the four lead characters confront their first alien pod-person lying prone on the rec room pool table, their reaction is, "Whew, I need a drink! Bourbons all around?" And they all sit down at the bar and start pouring, with the alien in plain view right behind them. But it all seems quite typical, for them; it goes with the stiff '50s demeanors, the men's cardigan sweaters and pipes, the women's cinched waists and tight hairdos. No doubt you've seen those pictures of smiling '50s "nuclear families" ignoring the gigantic missile in the living room.

Trying to evoke such exquisite emotional disconnection in The Happening only results in confusion. Deschanel's Alma sniveling about wanting to sit by herself on the train while they're evacuating New York City is just implausible and annoying, not evocative of any larger societal malaise. And Wahlberg's Elliot solves the mystery of the toxins so quickly it curtails the engrossing process of speculation about what's ailing us and our world this time around. (I won't tell you what it is, of course, other than to say I wouldn't be surprised if Al Gore had been called in as a consultant.)

Still, even at his most incoherent, Shyamalan can't obliterate the basic joys of the apocalyptic film. The characters' first reactions of fear and confusion, denial and rationalization; the controlled chaos of evacuation; the somber, fragmentary media broadcasts that go silent; the city or town as deathscape, eerily still; the shaky alliances with fellow evacuees formed on the run or in hiding; the temporary refuge with sinister oddballs (Shyamalan drafts Betty Buckley as a scary old recluse in this one); the belated military counteraction, and so on. You'd think by this time such a tried-and-true movie scenario would write itself, effortlessly, with casual brilliance, but to be fair to Shyamalan, it's a lot harder than it looks to pull off a "formula" film. He contributes some inspired images to our collective fantasy of The End. And even when it's not so inspired, The Happening fulfills its basic function. It shows us all those pleasurably morbid scenes we know and love so well -- just like that smarty-pants philosopher Walter Benjamin told us we would, right before he killed himself.

 
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