The Happening

What if the air that we breathe could kill us? What is the effect of increase in human population on nature? What happens when humans settlements clear vegetation? How will nature react to it? Can science reason the reaction, if there is one? These are the issues explored in M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest venture The Happening. Observing his progressively ordinary series of films (With the probable exception of Signs (2002)) starting from his fabulous third feature The Sixth Sense (1999), one will be quick to pan his new offering often with a tinge of prejudice. But forgetting statistics and filmographies, The Happening is not half as bad as some may claim.

The Happening records the events that spread over one day in the life of Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a science teacher in the city of Philadelphia. His marital relation with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) is not all that great. His friend Julian (John Leguizamo) is the math teacher at the same school. As Elliot is discussing the mass disappearance of bees in the eastern coast of the country, he comes to know of strange happenings in New York city. It is found that people inhale some kind of toxin that disorients them both physically and mentally, prompting them to kill themselves in the most bizarre fashions. It is found that these events originate in parks spread to other areas too. No one s able to say for sure the reasons for such strange events and its restrictions to the eastern coast alone. There is a large panic resulting in people’s migration to safer towns and cities. Julian discovers that his wife is in trouble, hands over his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) to Elliot and Alma and goes after her. He does not return. As Elliot, Alma and Jess try to run for their lives from the spreading toxins, they try to find the various reasons for its occurrence.

Perhaps the best observation by the film is about the mentality and the rationality of the people before and after the 9/11 attack. After the terrorist attack, people have been attributing every petty inexplicable event to terrorism. This has not only resulted in the undermining of their rational stability, but also resulted in distrust of people in one another and hence more misery. Fear has been the central emotion in all Shyamalan films. The high point of the movie is this portrayal of the contemporary American mentality. The weird attacks keep reducing as we move from to denser to sparser areas. Hence the story strikes a relationship between the ever increasing plaguing of nature by the fast growing human population. In this way, the attacks act as cries from the nature against the human ravaging. The theme is made clear at the house of Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) when she chides Jess for taking a cookie without asking and says “Do not touch what is not yours”. This is the line that briefs the motive of the film. Yet another theme is the movie is about how people overcome their emotional isolation when they are forced into a physical one. Both Alma and Elliot realize their attachment to their wives when they are seperated by the large stretch of grassland between their cabins.

Unlike some of the previous Shyamalan movies (especially The Village (2004), which also dealt with people’s apprehensions but never decided what it wanted to be), the central theme of eco-conservation is evident from early on. But it mixes it with the right amount of thrill to avoid the film from becoming didactic. On the negatives, the film is way too predictable for this generation and fails to deliver what one expects from the maker of The Sixth Sense – an absolutely honest thriller with no thinking stuff. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto and score by James Newton Howard faithfully underline what the director wants the viewers to feel. Mark Wahlberg’s performance is passable, but no one can ever believe this lad that seems like he is in the late 20’s to be a science teacher. The dialogues in the movie at many places are weak, to be euphemistic. Deliberately induced humour does not help at all.

M. Night Shyamalan, who has been evidently inspired by Alfred Hitchcock since the start of his career, treads the same path as his idol. Right from the habit of sticking to a single genre to the regular cameos in his films (and the occasional absence such as The Happening), Shyamalan seems to make his career a photocopy of the Master of Suspense’s. This time around, he has reworked the spectacular The Birds (1963) and tried to make it palatable to the post 9/11 audience. If it was the strange bird behaviour in The Birds, it is strange plant behaviour in The Happening. More verbose and explicit than its inspiration, The Happening has sequences that will force you to find similarities between the two. Right from the isolated country locales resembling Bodega Bay to the baseless worrying and reasoning of the people around, the film has “remake” written all over. The questions about the science of nature and the nature of science that was implicitly raised in The Birds is kept intact and even explained a bit. However, Shyamalan’s script comfortably adds an extra layer to that calls for environment preservation and control of pollution.

So, does The Happening mark the comeback of the director? Not Quite. Shyamalan, who gave us the genuinely original The Sixth Sense, is much more restricted this time and conforms to the time tested formula. I would say that The Happening is not his comeback, but definitely gives the director a little more breathing space in Hollywood and he can now gradually concoct a truly original script independent of industry needs. As for the recommendation, if you have seen the staggering The Birds, you can avoid this one and if you’ve not, The Happening is definitely a good option for you.