Thursday, June 19, 2008

"The Happening" is not happening.

M. Night Shyamalan's latest film "The Happening" is apparently producing some highly negative reviews. For example, Jim Emerson has some strong remarks about it:
Shyamalan seems to have devoted all his talent and skill to bringing off five or six images/effects in the entire film. The rest of the time, he either doesn't know or doesn't care what he's doing, though whether it's due to laziness or lack of interest is unclear. The compact between movie and audience known as "suspension of disbelief" has nothing to do in this instance with the film's otherworldly (or all-too-worldly) apocalyptic premise. We are ready, willing and able to believe that something in the air is mysteriously causing people to lose the will to survive. "The Happening" has more fundamental problems. It doesn't know how to make you believe that people are getting off a train, or standing in a field, or sharing a meal at a kitchen table -- commonplace scenes that should require no suspension of disbelief but are so badly bungled here it's... unbelievable.
I haven't seen the film, but from Roger Ebert's glowing review, I'm willing to offer some speculation about what went wrong. As Ebert points out, the film is another environmental apocalypse:
Elliot [the main character] meets a man who talks about a way plants have of creating hormones to kill their enemies, and he develops a half-baked theory that man may have finally delivered too many insults to the grasses and the shrubs, the flowers and the trees, and their revenge is in the wind.
If you calculated that the plotline is basically trying to capitalize on liberal guilt, you might be correct. Ebert writes:
Most of the other people we meet [in the film], not all, are muted and introspective. Had they been half-expecting some such "event" as this?

I know I have. For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act. We have finally insulted the planet so much that it can no longer sustain us. It is exhausted. It never occurred to me that vegetation might exterminate us. In fact, the form of the planet's revenge remains undefined in my thoughts, although I have read of rising sea levels and the ends of species.
The apocalyptic tale derives it force from striking at the deeply held fears and guilts of its audience. In effect, the apocalyptic tale becomes more believable for its audience when it is made more horrifying. It follows that one of the major flaws of "The Happening" is that it undermines itself by rather blatantly "pulling its punch".

For example, the chief selling point of the "The Happening" (as we can tell from Ebert's review) is that Earth's vegetation creates a neurotoxin that is fatal to humans when humans aggregate in sufficiently large numbers. This is good because it hits at one of the chief anxieties of modern political culture: that a corrupt mankind is out of harmony with nature. This is bad because the mechanism operates in an entirely passive, natural way. By emphasizing that the film's indictment of man is an entirely natural phenomenon, it allows mankind to escape moral indictment. If you think about it, one might as well argue that it is our romantic attraction to nature that is the true problem here. Perhaps New York City would have never been attacked by the plants, if only New Yorkers had had the foresight to ruthlessly exterminate all plant life from their streets and parks.

Another way in which the film pulls its punch is by demonstrating that the neurotoxin causes its victims first to lose the power of speech, then to become disoriented, and then simply and calmly to kill themselves. This acts to drain some of the horror from the act of suicide, since our inference is that the suicides do not understand and do not consciously experience what they are doing to themselves. Instead of overdosing mankind with pain and humiliation like a good apocalypse, here "The Happening" is making an extra effort to be merciful to man.

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