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(Note: I wrote this post after the release of The Happening two years ago. I thought it might be interesting to continue the conversation now that Shymalan has again sabotaged his once-promising career.)
M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Happening, opened this past weekend and as a big fan of most of his work, I made sure I was there on opening day to see it. When I left the theater, I was dumbfounded. I was shocked and horrified. Is it that good? Well…no, it’s that bad. It’s a train wreck, a film so inconsistent, so incoherent, so poorly shot, edited, directed, and resolved, so carelessly crapped onto the screen that it’s a mystery to me how it came out of the same creative well as movies like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Something has gone seriously awry in the land of Shyamalan. Why is this happening?
First let me tell you why I like Shyamalan’s work. It’s very distinct, and no, I don’t mean it’s marked by a ‘twist’ at the end. I think his success with The Sixth Sense unfairly set up an expectation that all of his films would have that same sort of shocking reveal in the third act. When I say distinct, I mean in style. His dialogue (full of pregnant pauses), framing (long reaction shots), and pacing (slow burn) are all very recognizable, very quirky, and for the most part (for me) very enjoyable. And then there are his undeniable spiritual themes and focus on character detail. I could dial in the Theolo-vision(tm) on his movies all day long.
His rise started with The Sixth Sense, a movie I admired for its cleverness and execution but didn’t really care for on any emotional level. It wasn’t until Unbreakable that I realized that Shyamalan was someone whose work I was going to get attached to. Unbreakable was not only truly unique, it was emotionally powerful. There are all sorts of truths in it about embracing who we are born to be, becoming the hero within, that sort of thing. Of course, it starred Samuel L. Jackson too, and seriously, how can you not love that guy?
Then there was Signs. This is one I can watch again and again and again. It’s just a great movie. Well acted, well directed, well written. And it had to be, because if it hadn’t been all of those things, then the entire film could have collapsed under that huge logical problem of aliens invading a planet made up of 70% water, a substance that is lethal to them. I mean seriously, all they had to do was wait for it to rain. But that didn’t matter to most of us because we cared about the people in the movie, the aliens were just a device providing conflict for the greater story of a man’s struggle with his own faith.
The Village is my favorite of his films and one of my all-time favorite movies period. It awed me and moved me to tears the first time I saw it and it gets richer and deeper with every viewing. It’s just a stunningly beautiful film. I’d love to have a poster of the shot of Ivy’s hand held out into the darkness as the monsters are coming and she refuses to withdraw because she knows Lucius will come for her. And when he does, at the last possible moment, and that incredible violin piece in the score plays…wow, it’s just transcendent. Once again, it works because I care so deeply for Ivy and Lucius that I’m willing to trust the storyteller to take me anywhere so long as he remembers to come back to what’s actually at stake.
On the heels of that, I couldn’t imagine what on earth he could do to top it. Lady in the Water was his attempt, and the beginning of his fall.I wanted to love this movie and in some individual parts, I did.But it didn’t hold water (har-har).It was too many pieces trying to fit into a cohesive whole.The mythology was too foreign, too complex, the characters were too many to get to know individually.At the end of the day, it didn’t work because I didn’t care enough about anyone and, in my indifference, I was left to see the holes in the rest of the film.
Some people may not have heard what happened during the making of the film. From what I’ve read, a lot of people told Shyamalan that the film had serious problems but he ignored their advice. Sometimes, I think the best thing an artist can do is ignore the critics and go his own way, but sometimes the critics are right. This was such a case. There was a good film lurking in the script but Shyamalan smothered it. On one hand I applaud him for going his own way, but on the other, I wish he’d listened to the people that tried to advise him otherwise because I feel like we, the audience, were robbed of a good story.
Okay, he stumbled. He put out a stinker. No problem, happens to us all. Time for the comeback. The Happening.The movie starts out wonderfully.It’s creepy.It’s a great set up.It’s got everywhere in the world to go. But all those quirky shots and that stilted dialogue that worked so many times before are broken in the extreme here.I can see how this movie was supposed to work conceptually, I can imagine it taking form in his brain, I can see what he wanted and where he wanted it to go but it didn’t translate onto the screen at all.The performances are bad across the board, the dialogue is almost pure exposition, shots are framed wrong, cut together wrong, it’s funny where it should be frightening, and eye-rolling when it tries to be funny, it tries to be scientific but is so full of logical problems that you can’t buy into it on any level.
Outside of two or three creepy shot sequences, the film is completely broken. It’s Battlefield Earth broken, Mystery Science Theater 3000 broken. By the end, I almost felt like it was bad on purpose. There is a scene with an old woman near the climax that is so bizarre that I honestly had no idea whether it was supposed to be funny or disturbing. And when we finally do get to the climax of the story, it’s supposed to be emotional, but it’s not. We don’t care anything about the characters. I don’t blame the actors for this, Zoe Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg are fine actors. I blame the director. It’s the director’s job to see the performances and know whether or not they are working.
So I want my Shyamalan back. What’s the solution here? Here’s my advice, I think it’s time to get back to basics. Forget all the weird set-ups and get back to making movies about people, about how they act and interact. Maybe it’s time to collaborate. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Some smart guy said that once. Personal style is well and good but maybe it’s time for Shymalan to step outside his own little box and relearn some things. If you can sell a relationship between two people (and he has) then you can take your audience anywhere. Forget about selling the premise, sell the people in it. If you want me to care about Mark Wahlberg walking across a field to die with the woman he loves, then I need to believe he loves her more than anything else on earth. I can’t even remember her name. That’s how much I cared.
It would be really be interesting to sit in a room with M. Night and watch The Happening with him just so I could pause it every few seconds to ask him what on EARTH he was thinking. How can a person that has clearly demonstrated an understanding of cinema put together a film that misfires at every opportunity? Hopefully the experience of making something as abominable as The Happening will be a catalyst for some sort of creative rebirth. I’ll still look forward to his next film because I think he’s capable of more goodness like The Village and Signs but I don’t know how his career can stand another event like The Happening.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.