A Sign of the Times is “Happening”

R, 91 minutes, 20th Century Fox

One of the key ingredients that goes into an M. Night Shyamalan film is not even the film at all, but the power of its trailers and TV spots to keep the anticipating audience pondering of what lies beneath, plus ultimately grabbing new interests from those who were either not going to see it or were thinking twice, based on the competition at the summer multiplex. Shyamalan certainly started off his career of eerie thrillers with a bang, as The Sixth Sense caused an unlikely sensation in 1999. He further polished his skills with two effective films that followed, Unbreakable, and Signs, the latter of which I believe to be a brilliant film. With his career approaching the level of top tier among Hollywood summer directors, he got real risky with his patented twists and turns in 2004’s, The Village. As if his fan base wasn’t split down the line enough before releasing that film, The Village definitely got Shyamalan extra lashings and criticisms from all new groups, including me. That was the first time I found myself appalled at the “trick-ending obsession” of his, and what’s worse is that I was very much involved in the first half of the movie. It was set up perfectly for a more haunting, more realistic conclusion, but it falls apart into complete absurdity. Just when I thought he could get no more insane and over-reaching, 2006’s Lady in the Water was unveiled. I’m not going to even start displaying my disappointment in that movie, so I’ll simply leave it at that – a major disappointment and so bad that it, combined with the disaster of The Village, pounced out nearly all of the hope I had left for the once-promising director. But what is so ingenious about Shyamalan and whatever studio funds each of his movies is, I’ll mention it again – the intriguing advertisements. That is the one thing that has been consistently brilliant throughout his career, and it is no different with his newest film, The Happening. There are questions presented in the ads that were enticing enough to make me forget the recent bombs in his filmography and give him another solid chance to redeem himself.

It would be easy to expect and assume that Shyamalan would continue to follow the stapled trend of the intricate storyline with a surprise ending nailed to it, but with The Happening, it is clear from the start that he has dialed down his efforts to shock, in favor of simplicity, which he proves can be just as profound. Actually, to say that he has just dialed down from what we’re accustomed to seeing him do, is an understatement. A strange incident occurs in New York City’s Central Park on a beautiful, sunny morning. The fair number of people populating the area at the time are frozen, seemingly manipulated by an unknown device, and begin killing those around them, and/or committing suicide. The unexplainable happening quickly spreads throughout largely populated spots in the city, people dying is odd ways at an alarming rate. Shortly thereafter, the national news, having no way to pin down a real answer to this disaster, informs the world in the way it always like to resort to if clueless – that it is most likely the work of terrorist masterminds. Meanwhile, in a high school in Philadelphia, a science teacher named Elliot Moore has ignited a classroom debate on what might be the reason for the declining population of honey bees in the world. Elliot is an enthusiastic teacher, almost a throwback to the olden days of individuals whose one and only goal was to legitimately educate young minds. Mark Wahlberg plays this character in a way that makes him an undeniable original among protagonists in modern thrillers. Just as Elliot is a throwback to the real schoolteacher, Wahlberg makes himself comparable, with the tone of everything involved in this performance, to the great actors of the very old days. Roger Ebert said in his review for this movie that he would most likely be in the minority of people who liked it, and I can easily see why he called that out. From the opening fifteen minutes the audience is going to decide whether or not to have patience with the entire experience or not, and I had the immediate feeling among my full crowd that I was in a minority myself. Shyamalan has done a risky, even brave thing with making the main characters, both Elliot and his wife Alma, quirky to a high level, but it is a risk that I thought paid off once I let it all sink in and accepted them for who they were. Zooey Deschanel takes on what I think is an extremely difficult role and handles it with an odd, magic subtlety.

When the Moore’s and their close friends begin to run for safety, like the rest of the Eastern part of the country, Elliot prepares solutions, equations, rustles over possible reasons in his head how, why this could possibly be happening. It is such an interesting, humane way to tell this story, through the eyes of a resilient and humble science teacher. When the rampant paranoia of terrorism and other things are seeming less and less an answer for what is happening, then we are forced to face the fact that it could very well be the initial warning signs of the end of times. The movie isn’t trying to make any intricate, complicated plot developments, but rather is displaying a story of survival in what could or could not be the end of it all, and Shyamalan scores here by writing the Moore’s as truly good people. There are real conflicts in their lives that we get to see unfold, some things that were held inside are seen coming out because of the fear of dying in an instant. Wahlberg gives what I think is arguably is best performance yet, taking major risks and ultimately creating something entirely different than anything he’s ever done. I know there will be people, many people, who will question why an actor like him would play a role like this. I agree that it just doesn’t seem like something that could work out, but it is obvious that Wahlberg wants to broaden his range even more, to become a full actor, and this is a great step in doing that. I tried to stay away from a lot of the core details of the film, because those are always supposed to be left for the viewer to discover for themselves on screen as they unfold, and particularly in a Shyamalan film. I am happy to say that he has stayed away from the focus of leading to a “ending for the ages”, and it pays off. I am certainly not saying that the ending is any less something to anticipate, just not the “surprise twist” this time around. It is a fitting ending, one that is more frightening, and timely, than anything he has offered yet.



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6 Responses to “A Sign of the Times is “Happening””

  1. Lucinda Castro Says:

    To be honest, this movie was horrible. I can say this has been the first movie that Mark Walberg has played in that I actually did not like. The movie wasn’t specific with what was going on and the end was completely stupid.

  2. Ferguson Says:

    Sorry you felt that way. I found the themes to be very clear and the ending extremely fitting. I like the majority of Wahlberg’s films and performances, and this one can be added to it.

  3. Rodger Jacobs Says:

    See, I never understood the appeal of Shymalan to begin with. Anyone who has ever read Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story, “The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” (required reading when I was in high school way back when) could see the “twist” ending in “The Sixth Sense” almost two hours before it was trotted out.

    Shymalan is beyond derivative — that adjective is reserved for the equally-overpraised Quentin Tarantino — he is a rip-off artist who counts on his audience being ill-read and ill-informed culturally because that way he can feed them unoriginal works and pass them off as his own. Have we forgotten the plagiarism lawsuit over “Lady in the Water”? (Even his titles — shit, “Lady in the Lake” is a famous Raymond Chandler novel. See what I mean?)

  4. Ferguson Says:

    I wish good, classic short stories were required reading when I was in high school, but they weren’t. In addition to not reading too much of a variety early on in my life and really still now in my 20’s, I also might as well be a part of the ill-informed bunch that you’ve mentioned, for I do think Shyamalan has been an intriguing mind for a good majority of his career, and Tarantino for most all of his. I am not saying what both of them have thrown out have been complete original and distinctive pieces of works, but I have been a fan of some of their work. I wouldn’t consider Tarantino an originator of any type of film-making, but he certainly is a well seasoned fan of all types of cinema, which is embedded deep inside all of his works. His movies are like homages to dozens of styles and cultures and eras of film.

  5. elissa Says:

    Where’s the hand drawn stars?

    Well I’m glad you liked this, because I still want to give it a chance, I rather like Shymalan even though he steals my ideas and puts Marky Mark as the main character. But it’s good to hear he doesn’t do a bad job. I’ve seen a film or two where I felt like he was just over dramatic. Maybe he’s gotten better over the years.

    And I agree with your friend talking about Tarantino, though I like him, I can say he uses his inspirations a bit too much rather than just coming up with his own idea.

  6. Ferguson Says:

    I haven’t transfered the scans of the hand drawn stars to my laptop yet, which is stupid because that’s pretty much where I’m doing all my writing now. Thanks for reminding me though, because I need to get that on there soon.

    I think I am fine with Tarantino doing what he is doing, as long as he continues to create the kinetic energy and excitement that he always does.

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