M. Night Shyamalan seems determined to kill off his career. I’ll explain.
In his latest film, a would-be Hitchcockian thriller called The Happening , people start killing themselves all along the Northeast corridor. (And no Amtrak does not figure in this scenario.) It starts in Central Park. Then in a Philadelphia park. Then in out-of-the-way wooded areas. Then in shacks propped up in Who-knows-where-ville.
At first terrorists are blamed. (N.Y. construction workers start throwing themselves off girders in a scene reminiscent of the poor souls who threw themselves from the flaming towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11a visual and auditory analogue I found in questionable taste.) Then leaking nuclear power plants are suspected. Then the C.I.A.
The first symptom of the mysterious “event” is a neurological misfire that causes people to start speaking as if they were reading the User Agreement for Microsoft Office 2007. (Or perhaps that was just the scripted dialogue.) Then victims start walking backward in a herky-jerky manner, as if Andy Rooney were trying to moonwalk. Finally, they take whatever is at handa gun, some broken glass, a mulcherand off themselves.
Survivors are advised to flee.
The “characters”wooden, lifeless, inert even when in motionlook perplexed and anxious, which is to be expected, given that their film careers are quickly coming to an end. In the case of Zooey Deschanel, however, who plays the unstable wife of a schoolteacher played by Mark Wahlberg, reactions range from “I’m going to kill my agent” to that of someone undergoing a rather invasive and inappropriately public cavity search.
Why is the “happening” happening? Or, as I came to frame the question, why is The Happening happening?
All I know is that, after about half an hour, I, too, tried to kill myself. First I flung myself from the top row of the stadium seating at our local Regal Cinemas. I did not fling with sufficient thrust, however, and landed in the lap of one Mrs. Marilyn Belfry of Rego Park, who I now owe $12 to cover a dry-cleaning bill. I then tried consuming the box my Sno-Caps came in. After about five minutes I began to experience a profound sense of physical and psychological well-being, proving once again that junk-food wrappers are often more nutritious than the yummies themselves. Finally, I attempted to pick a fight with a gentleman whose height and weight could be measured only by positron emission tomography and whose HGH-inspired acromegaly would qualify him for permanent disabilty in at least four of the non-permanent member nations of the U.N. Security Council. He responded to my taunts with something about his “going through some stuff” and how “hug therapy” was seeing him through this rough patch.
I would clearly have to endure the rest of the film fully conscious.
There simply wasn’t much more plot, unless you count the country folk who are holed up in their ramschackles waiting to kill anyone who spreads the “virus,” or the mean-spirited Christian lady who assumes Wahlberg and Daschenel are going to steal her junk and kill her in her sleep. (Her retreat from the “world” does not protect her from a just comeuppance, however. She, too, becomes a victim of the “event.”)
I just sat there waiting and waiting and waiting to find out why. Why didn’t I go see The Incredible Hulk instead? Because it started at 11:15 instead of 10 o’clock? I missed cameo appearances by Captain America and Tony Stark for this?
I am happy to report that the film did finally end and proffer an “explanation”: It turns out that the “event,” the happening , wasn’t caused by terrorists. (It’s never terrorists, of course. Terrorists are figments of American paranoia.) And it wasn’t nukesor even government weapons-testing or the C.I.A. It was . . .
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
Us. People. Or, rather, the extent to which people have threatened, disturbed, or simply ignored Mother Nature, forcing her to emit toxic gases into the atmosphere that compel members of the species homo sapiens latecomers and intruders as far as the eco-system is concernedto self-eliminate. The Environment’s self-defense. Gaia as Warrior Queen.
I’m not making this up.
There are a couple of ways to read Mr. Shyamalan’s fable. One way is as a cautionary tale, an attempt to wake us up to what we’re doing to the earth before it’s too late and nature takes its revenge and forces people to run themselves over with their own farm equipment. So Shyamalan has drunk deep the Earth First! Kool-Aid and come to believe that humans are parasites who should kill themselves immediately and leave the poor poison ivy and chickweed alone.
But if that’s the case, then the unexpected and joyfully received pregnancy at the film’s close makes no sense. Wahlberg and Deschanel’s rocky marriage has been healed by the crisistheir alienation endedand new life is the result. That can only mean more of usmore people . Is that finally what it’s all aboutone big Can’t we all just get along? Reconciliation between husband and wife, carbon-based biped and smooth cordgrass?
The other way to read the film, which I believe may be unique to me, is as Shyamalan’s radically heretical and politically incorrect answer to Environmentalism. This isn’t an evangelistic tract for same, complete with apocalyptic doom, but it’s very opposite . Don’t you seethe trees are our enemy! They’re biding their time until they kill us all! Maples, pines, the mighty oaksall conniving carnivores, just waiting to exert their apical dominance! And so we must kill them before they kill us. Sam Walton is our only hope!
So either Mr. Shyamalan is committing professional suicide here by running against the environmental tide, spurning the Gore Messiah (who sacrificed himself by hanging chad) and inviting the ire of his fellow Hollywoodniks . . .
Or he just made another really incredibly silly movie.
Which is a shame, as M. Night Shyamalan made one of my favorite films of the past ten years Unbreakable . But it seems that the spell he cast with The Sixth Sense and Signs may finally, regrettably, be broken.