M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water is an incomprehensibly historic misfire of staggering proportions. Yet somehow, someway, against all odds, walking out of the theater with a huge grin on my face after seeing it on opening day, I felt genuine admiration for a man who had somehow managed to deliver such an absurd vision unto the masses. I didn’t buy the logic of his film for one second, I thought it was laughable, yet I told myself that as long as M. Night Shyamalan continued to convince people to give him an overabundance of money to produce such truly preposterous cinema, I would be there on opening weekend to support him. This past weekend, I did just that. But something happened this time around. Though the screening produced the bafflement and unintentional laughs I was expecting, I woke up the next morning feeling bitter and angry. Sometimes it’s fun to laugh at things and believe that unintentional genius is better than pure genius. In this case, it is not. The Happening is an unforgivable, shameful, career-shattering embarrassment of a motion picture. This isn’t disposable cinema; it’s garbage disposal cinema. Even as a symbol of the Avant-Retarde movement, or as a work of unintentional comedy, or of who knows what else, it remains defiantly inexcusable. Shyamalan should be teaching video production at a small Philadelphia community college and making no-budget digital movies during semester breaks that never escape the film festival rejection circuit; yet based on his breakout blockbuster smash The Sixth Sense, he continues to be a major Hollywood director. Which sparks the inevitable question: What does a person have to do to get fired in that town?
The Happening is not just bad. It is more than awful. It might very well be the most inappropriately, resoundingly stupid movie that has ever been made. It is only funny when it is taking itself seriously. It is never frightening. It is never bad enough to be great, and it isn’t well crafted enough to earn the label of sub-mediocre. It is shockingly irresponsible. It feels like a creative writing story scribbled by a middle-school student who has just discovered Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.
Shyamalan’s profound insecurity as an artist is made clear in every single word of dialogue that is spoken throughout the film, for it is here where he exposes his greatest flaw: his inability to take criticism. Every single utterance in The Happening feels like the first draft of a screenplay that received not one word of outside input or feedback. It is as if Shyamalan finished his script and said, “This is the movie we are going to make, don’t question anything along the way!” Every time anyone opens his or her mouth this becomes screamingly apparent. To give one concrete example, let us examine the following line: “She’s headed to the town of Princeton.” The town of Princeton? You mean the town of Princeton in the state of New Jersey? That town of Princeton? The only valid explanation for this stilted, overdone dialogue is that Shyamalan was perhaps worried that a majority of his audience wouldn’t realize that Princeton is, in fact, a town and not merely an Ivy League university, but even that doesn’t excuse it. If I can make one minor belated script suggestion, M. Night, it is this: cross out the “town of” and just call it fucking Princeton. (It has been reported that Shyamalan did take some advice in shaping the script—he even renamed the title from The Green Effect—but that does nothing to shake the feeling that this is an untouched first draft hurriedly photocopied onto the big screen.)
While Lady in the Water was also missing that core kernel of… I still don’t know what that core kernel is but for now let us simply call it Basic Human Logic (i.e., whatever it was that would have created a sense of plausibility, even in a b-movie sense)… there was a brash innocence to Shyamalan’s naïve celebration of communal spirit that gave it an idiotic charm. But here, he is flailing from the outset. As preposterous as Lady in the Water was, its overriding message was a positive and consistent one: for people to rid the world of Narfs, everyone must band together, for community is the solution! This time around, if one were to come up with a message, aside from the obliviously obvious NATURE IS UNPREDICTABLE, it would be this: STAY AWAY FROM PEOPLE. At first, I thought it was AVOID PUBLIC PARKS BECAUSE THEY WILL KILL YOU, but that turned into a more general declaration to stay in one’s house and avoid other innocent human beings at all cost. When Wahlberg and his disciples (for that is what they are—as in Lady in the Water, why does no one ever challenge this wholly un-credible hero?) watch two packs of people making their way towards the model home they have just escaped, the film reaches a peak of nonsensicalness. By this point, the questions raised are endless:
–Why are these people traveling in such odd, animal-like packs?
–Was the introduction of a model home filled with fake appliances and other things merely comic relief?
–How many people make an official pack, thereby causing the trees to unleash their evil toxins?
–Is it the wind or the trees that is the real monster? Or is it a combination of both?
–Is this really what this movie is about?
–Are the possible explanations of terrorists or nuclear energy meant to keep viewers guessing?
–Did Shyamalan actually think he was creating actual scares?
–Was the crew aware of what a legendarily stupid a movie they were making?
I will give Shyamalan credit for one thing. It takes a rare, special filmmaker to deliver a multi-million dollar product that seems as if it were composed entirely of rushed, unrehearsed first takes (see the original Saw as an example of why this might not be the best idea to make a movie in that fashion). It’s clear that there was directing going on, for Deschanel, who usually underplays to believable effect and whose expressive face was made for the big screen, has never appeared more drained and lifeless. She looks anemic. She also looks hungover and annoyed. The last time I saw a performance this agitatedly stilted–as if I could see the actor not wanting to be there—was Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace. Funnily enough, the last time I saw such calculatedly bad direction of an actress with talent was Natalie Portman’s performance in that very same movie. M. Night will probably take this as a compliment—“Hey, this guy compared me to George Lucas!”—but I don’t mean it like that. I mean it in the way that I don’t think either of you should direct another movie again. I mean it like that, Manoj.
The Happening shares an undeniable similarity to Frank Darabont’s The Mist. They are both two modern films that have the aura of dated, classic b-movies. But there is a major difference at work here: The Mist is an intelligent professional making a b-movie, while The Happening is a not-nearly-as-intelligent amateur trying to make a b-movie. In interviews, Shyamalan implies that the acting was intentionally melodramatic, but his poor direction instead renders it narcodramatic. The main problem here is that Shyamalan doesn’t appear to grasp the most important thing when making a b-movie: the performances should be sincere. However you want to look at it, intentional or unintentional, the fact remains that the characters in The Happening are caricatured and preposterous (John Leguizamo is the only one who brings some actual three-dimensional humanity to his character). Somewhere along the way, that very important point was never addressed, or it was grossly misdirected. The last thing a director should do in a situation like this is to tell his actors to be ironic. And if he wasn’t, in fact, being ironic and these are the performances he wanted to elicit… well, I simply don’t know how to wrap my head around that one. That said, Wahlberg’s performance is borderline brilliant. As abrasive and moronic as his character is, at his most outlandish moments he seems to understand what kind of movie he’s in. Not nearly as well as someone like Jon Voight in Anaconda, but well nonetheless. The fact remains, however: this is one of whiniest and most annoying characters in Hollywood history.
Another thing. Is it just my liberal sensitivity, or is it slightly questionable to show a young, unarmed African-American adolescent getting shot in the head by a scared redneck? Yes, I realize that we don’t actually see the bullet going into his head, and I thank you for that, Mr. Shyamalan. Instead, we get to see this dead child after the deed is done (the second unarmed dead child, as a matter of fact), lying on the ground with his brain seeping out of the crater in his skull. So I guess it wasn’t that bad, after all.
As for the R-rated money shots themselves (the studio’s head-scratchingly desperate main selling point for this film, as a matter of fact), they are so consciously constructed that they feel degradingly gratuitous. It’s as if Shyamalan is speaking to us from the screen saying, “Okay, people, you’ve sensed it, you’ve seen the signs, now watch me get grody to the max!” There is nothing graphic and shocking in these moments, they are merely obvious and cartoonish. They become set pieces unto themselves, and though they should add to the tension and establish a more terrifying tone, they don’t. The only death scene that had creepiness potential was the spectacle of the workers dangling from the trees, but this became more outlandish than unsettling for several reasons: 1) There were way too many ladders; 2) The ladders were laughably tall; 3) Each worker brings his own 40-foot ladder to work? 4) Is this implying that landscapers are rapists of nature and deserve to be murdered, or, better yet, driven to suicide?
That sparks another important point. One isn’t supposed to read grandiose symbolism in a b-movie like this, yet it is impossible not to. Shyamalan’s directing is so blatant that one thinks he’s setting moments up for an actual pay-off down the line (the mood ring, the aforementioned model home). But there’s never any pay-off. This works into the themes and explanations for what is wreaking all of the havoc. Surely this is some sort of statement about nature and humanity’s place in it and how we better respect Mother Nature or she’s going to wipe us out without blinking. But instead of having one point and sticking with it, Shyamalan simply follows the trail wherever his first-draft brain takes him. He introduces these themes (intentionally or unintentionally, who knows), only to leave them behind in the previous boring, uneventful scene. As I said, I don’t go into Hollywood movies with a pretentious chip on my shoulder that a movie has to be about anything other than the story at hand (I thought The Strangers was quite excellent, as a matter of fact), but Shyamalan’s broad-stroke directing implies that deeper statements are being made when they, in fact, aren’t.
Based on all of this, allow me to suggest a rather expensive experiment of sorts, one that I propose to the executives at the studio that greenlit The Happening, 20th Century Fox. Here is my challenge:
Give any human being on Earth the budget, cast, producer, and technical crew that M. Night Shyamalan was given for this movie and I guarantee you that this person will make a better movie than The Happening. Any human being on Earth. Give my mom these materials and she will make a better movie than The Happening. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Let me rephrase the challenge: Give any human being on Earth the budget, cast, producer, and technical crew that M. Night Shyamalan was given for this movie and I guarantee that this person will deliver a product that is at least as embarrassingly unaccomplished as The Happening. I swear to Mother Nature.
The painful truth is that I had a blast while watching the film—again, not in the intended manner—but when it ended, and especially when I woke up the next morning, my delight at the preposterousness of it all was gone and all that remained was frustration and anger. This movie could have been shot for ten or twenty thousand dollars, but it was reportedly budgeted at fifty-seven million. Even if it were only twenty, or ten, even, that still wouldn’t excuse its lackluster production value and horridly inept writing and acting. Which leads me to challenge 20th Century Fox once again:
I bet all of the appendages on the left side of my body that if you gave me a budget of this size, which I would divvy up between fifty filmmakers of my choosing, the resulting fifty films would be more credible, entertaining, thoughtful, scary, funny, poignant, exciting, exhilarating, and, most importantly, worthwhile than The Happening.
While I would love to simply laugh at Shyamalan and support any individual who can slip through the Hollywood cracks to create such individual cinema on a grand scale, I don’t think I can do that anymore. M. Night Shyamalan is no longer producing merely harmless diversionary entertainment. He’s making corrupt nonsense. The joke is over, Manoj. I’m out.
— Michael Tully
(Bonus Note: Congratulations to Lance Edmonds (editor of the incredible Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) for winning “The Happening Pool.” For those of you who were wondering, the word happening is said twelve times in the movie. There are five instances of variations on the word (happened, happens) but these were not figured into the equation.)