Allow me to state up front so that you'll know one of my idiosyncrasies. I am an M Night Shyamalan fan, and to date I have not been disappointed with his works. The closest I have been to thinking one of his movies was an unenjoyable one, was Unbreakable, but that's because I'd read the whole plot before watching it, thus spoiling it big time, so I'm going to give that film another go hopefully soon. But for each and every other movie starting with his groundbreaking The Sixth Sense, I've come to appreciate what Shyamalan is, not a horror-meister, not a one trick pony, but a damn good storyteller, like it or not. So if you are to disagree with me now, then tread the rest of this piece of writing carefully.
I suppose if one were to go into The Happening expecting Shyamalan to tell a story in a conventional way, then one will definitely be disappointed. If you look at his past works, they range from the supernatural, to science fiction, from fantasy to the great unknown. And I earnestly thought that the phenomenal success of The Sixth Sense has left mass audiences almost always anticipating the next big twist or the next big scare coming out of his stories. I guess that's not really the point, though at times he does gleefully insert some really high tension or suspenseful moments to remind us that he still can, but chooses not to.
Like the trailers would have shown, we have scenes of inexplicable violence, of people leaping off buildings en masse, with people dropping dead like flies. And it seems to be like an epidemic, just that everyone's clueless about what's exactly going on, with speculation being things like some covert government operations, terrorists who have harnessed chemical, radiological or biological weapons, or Mother Nature finally showing humanity the middle finger. There are no easy answers, and within the chaos, Shyamalan roots us to the Moore couple Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who seem to have problems in communicating with each other.
And then bingo. To me, this is not a movie about finding out what the issue at hand is, or trying to crack the mystery behind the phenomenon, or even about figuring out what the twist, if any, would be. It's a story about communication, how we, in today's context, are so reliant on mass media delivering every bit of incident deemed newsworthy, and providing that amped up "insights" to send us to paranoia. If you notice of late, we have been bombarded with crisis after crisis, or could it really be instead, the flavour of the moment that the mass media drums up? Avian Flu? Food Crisis? Fuel Crisis? Business Continuity? Terrorism? The list goes on, with news editors determining what to drum up, and where to send everyone crying out that the sky is falling. The Happening does just that, as we see newsflash after newsflash providing speculation after speculation that everyone listens, and accedes to.
But it's not just the mass media alone, but the story also puts the spotlight on how reliant we are on our mobile devices, so much so that they actually have already become second nature to us. If we want to talk to someone, we pick up the phone, or we text the person. Gone is the value of face to face communications, as we talk to one another through an electronic device and medium. And we all know what happens to these wireless gadgets come a crisis, when base stations get knocked out, and we feel incapacitated, and so alone. And the rare occasion when our little island experiences unexpected power brownouts and we lose connectivity, we go into fits and strangely enough, feel at a loss at what to do next?
We are creatures who must talk to one another, otherwise I guess we'll go insane, and not everyone's cut out to be a hermit living alone, making that informed decision choosing to be cut off from the outside world and be self-sufficient. Perhaps that's why isolation has been designed as punishment, and one probably might go a little bit cranky, losing social skills. Just like how the prominent old lady in The Happening become overly suspicious of every wee thing that doesn't go her way.
Shyamalan gave us probably the weakest protagonist in his tales to date. We are familiar with Mark Wahlberg in his many alpha-male action roles, like those in The Italian Job remake, or his sniper in Shooter. Here, his Elliot is a school science teacher who's the most clueless amongst all clueless characters in Shyamalan's fictional worlds. He absolutely, like the audience, has no idea what's going on, has no plan, and doesn't hesitate to tell everyone just that, exhibiting some classic deer-caught-in-the-headlights look with wide eyes and flared nostrils. Even Keanu Reeves pale in comparison to what Wahlberg managed to do here. Zooey Deschanel's Alma too plays Elliot's just as clueless wife, only that she's harbouring a secret that you can decipher the minute it gets suggested on screen. Throughout the movie, husband and wife has to sort of issues as the clock ticks down to doomsday, and just like The Incredible Hulk, this little love story slowly grew in importance.
And to pre-empt those who would dislike the movie, you're likely to find fault with the distinct lack of scares - ok, there's really one jump-from-your-seat moment, and various other scenes with an unflinching camera in the many faces of death - and the exclamation of "you mean that's it?" The build up is masterfully done, though the ending might be a little bit abrupt and I suspect there might be some cutting of corners which might find their way to the DVD. Forget the fact that The Happening had to undergo some massive rewrites by Shyamalan for it to be accepted by the studios. Forget that this movie contains elements of suggestion that it's eco-warfare and Mother Nature is fighting back with results as significant as that we've already seen and experienced, with unbearable temperatures and disasters of large magnitudes. Like movies such as The Mist, while it's about the great unknown, it also serves as a warning that one day, just one day, we might be faced with questions we have no answers to, and to compound the problem, we're no longer collaborating and communicating effectively to work toward a solution. And that is a scary thought indeed.