Thursday, May 30, 2013

Riske Business: The Happening: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

With a new M. Night Shyamalan movie on the horizon (After Earth), I want to posit a theory about The Happening to help you understand why I like to watch it once every couple of years.

First things first. The Happening is a terrible movie. Just look at the impassioned critiques it inspired from my colleagues at F This Movie!:

“…an interesting failure… but definitely an abortion” – Doug

“I don't mean to sound crass, but what the F? Who approved the script? Who approved the movie at all? Somehow the director was able to make EVERY actor terrible, while saying the worst lines... ("It makes you kill yourself. Just when you thought there couldn't be any more evil invented!" OR "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it!" OR "I see you eyein' my lemon drink." OR...) I don't think I was supposed to be laughing. The movie looked pretty. That is fine. But everything else was pretty terrible. Pretentious? Shyamalan took an interesting idea and peed all over it.” - Erika

“Not only the worst horror film ever made, but I think it’s one of the worst films ever made.” - JB

“It is a fall from grace like you’ve never seen.” – Patrick
It used to be that I liked watching the movie ironically because it’s misguided and brain-dead in ways that Hollywood movies are rarely allowed to be. I laugh more at The Happening than probably 80 percent of the comedies I watch. But upon this most recent viewing, I realized I like the movie for a completely different reason. The Happening is a $48 million temper tantrum about the critical and public reaction to The Village and Lady in the Water. It’s one of the most personal statements ever put on film by a filmmaker. It is not a horror movie and it is not about ecological revenge against humans – not unless M. Night Shyamalan considers himself a force equal to Mother Nature (which he might). I no longer think this is a movie by someone who has lost it. It’s more cynical than that. I think he knows exactly what he is doing. In short, he wants to destroy everyone because they don’t like him anymore.

I remember seeing an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he describes the relationship between a film director and their audience, comparing it to having an umbilical cord connecting the two. It is ok to confuse an audience for a while but they always need to know that they are in good hands. When that bond is severed, the director can never get the audience back. This is exactly what happened to M Night Shyamalan in 2004 with The Village.

Let’s go back to July 30, 2004. It was opening night for both Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and The Village. My friends Brad, Chris and I went to our local megaplex and saw them back to back. Boy did we love Harold & Kumar!* Following those comedic heights, we went to see the new Shyamalan movie. At the time, audiences (including us) were in awe of Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense was awesome, Unbreakable was interesting and Signs was solid too. We were putty in Night’s hands. And then he betrayed our trust.
The reaction from the opening night crowd to the reveal in The Village is something I will never forget. You could hear gasps of disbelief from the sold-out audience, followed by rapidly accelerating restlessness and catcalling as that turd sputtered to its finale. THEY’RE COSTUMES????!!!! Seriously, you’re going to send a blind woman into the woods to get medicine? Adrien Brody is mentally challenged except when it comes to murdering? Does Joaquin survive? What the hell! This is the only time I loudly booed at the end of a movie. The Village opened huge and then dropped 67.5% at the box office in its second weekend. People were not happy. It could have been seen as a speed bump in an otherwise promising career, however, what most people did was revel in the opportunity to tear Shyamalan down.
His next movie was the colossally dopey Lady in the Water. Whatever Shyamalan defenders that remained seemed to turn on him here. I think this one stung Shyamalan the most. As detailed in the book The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale (which covered the making of Lady in the Water), this was a very personal project to him. Both critics and the public hated it and the movie gave more ammunition to his detractors, beginning with his indefensible choice to cast himself in the movie. Do you remember who he played? Vick Ran, a writer whose book will better humanity’s future. The Cookbook, as it was called in the movie, contains views and ideas so significant that they will inspire a future President to greatly change the world for the better. And then Vick learns he will be assassinated due to his controversial ideas. What’s more pretentious than casting yourself as the man who will save the world? Casting yourself as the man who will INSPIRE the man who will save the world! And of course, you (the inspirational figure) will be martyred. It’s as if Shyamalan is saying, "You can tear me down today but one day you’ll eat your words when someone discovers my movies and preaches them as gospel."
And now we get to The Happening, Shyamalan’s big cinematic piss-off to his naysayers. Let’s look at the evidence.

What is “The Happening”? It’s a breakdown in an individual’s mental state, beginning with mild confusion and memory loss, which then progresses to complete disorientation and compels individuals to commit suicide. I think Shyamalan is saying that audiences are having a mental breakdown because we no longer see him as a genius. We must be confused. Don’t we remember how great he once was? We must be crazy not to like The Village and especially Lady in the Water! With The Happening, it’s as if he’s saying "You know what, I’m going to make a movie so bad it will make you want to kill yourself."

Ok, next: the Happening in The Happening is mysterious and unexplainable. Here is where I think Shyamalan is grasping at straws. He’s backpedaling a bit. He really is bothered by the fact that we don’t like him anymore and he wants answers. This is seen (um..heard) in his cameo as Joey, the guy who won’t stop calling Zooey Deschanel’s character and also in the scene near the beginning where Mark Wahlberg is sort of hitting on one of his students. He tells the student that he has perfect features, but in a few years little variations will happen and those perfect features will now seem whack. Kind of like how audience thought all of Shyamalan’s features were awesome in 1999 but were kind of whack in 2004 and 2006.

Why the decision to go with airborne toxins? This one is easy. Airborne toxins = negative word of mouth. We’re the ones spreading the disease, especially when we’re in groups. And for that, Shyamalan wants to kill us. Night has a history with this. Do you think it was an accident that he viciously killed off the movie critic character in Lady in the Water? Shyamalan reacts very poorly to negative criticism.

Furthermore, the newscasts shown at the beginning of The Happening are very strange. They seem to know all about the epidemic within minutes. They have day-of autopsy reports. I think this is Shyamalan’s dig at entertainment and box office reports -- the kind that said his past two movies were dead on-arrival critically and/or financially from their opening day.
Lastly, let’s look at the casting of the old hermit woman. This is where I really discovered what a vengeful prick M. Night Shyamalan was being. The old hermit woman is played by Betty Buckley, who is best known for appearing in Brian DePalma’s Carrie as the sympathetic gym teacher. I don’t think this is a coincidence. This is a subtle nod that The Happening is Shyamalan’s Carrie. But he is Carrie White! Lady in the Water was prom, we (the audience) doused Carrie (Shyamalan) in symbolic pigs blood, we all laughed at him and now he wants revenge. The Happening is M. Night’s payback. That is why it is all a fuck you – to the audience, to the actors (who he truly embarrasses) and to planet Earth.

Am I reading too much into The Happening? I don’t think I am. Want to know why? Because Signs taught us that nothing is random, accidental or circumstantial. Swing away, Riske!

*After seeing The Village, Brad, Chris and I went to White Castle and came up with the dumb idea of having a burger eating contest. Brad punked out early but Chris and I went on and on. We got up to nine burgers for me and 10 for him. Chris was the winner by technicality, but we were both about to become big losers by fate. As I tried to drive home, I had to roll my car seat WAY back to accommodate my massive burger gut. Chris and I were both gasping for summer air with the power windows rolled down and the A/C on full blast. Chris pleaded and sweated all the way back to his house for me to drive faster, as he needed a toilet. The gas was on par with chemical warfare.

Cut to the next day: Chris and I were both invited to our friend Danielle’s college graduation party. It was a pool party. Chris and I both were really into Danielle and all of her friends were pretty lovely as well. Before we went to the party, Chris and I stopped at Best Buy to buy gift cards for Danielle. I turned to Chris who still reeked of onions and gas and told him "Dude, you stink." He replied "I thought that was you!" At the party, the girls were on point and I was in agony. It was like being invited to the Playboy Mansion and then having...well…horrible gas. It is a day that will haunt me for the rest of my life.


  1. You make a good case for such a travesty. Nice article, Riske.

    Do you think there was any behind the scenes meaning of his film "The Sixth Sense" after making the family film "Wide Awake"?

  2. @Cameron - I've never seen Wide Awake (have you, any good?) and it's been a while since I've seen The Sixth Sense. BUT...I accept your challenge. I'll look into it.

  3. Damn hell of a theory their Riske, great stuff. Oh the Happening, my fav bad line is "Be scientific douchebag!" If I could talk to Night I would tell him "What made your first couple of films great was they focused on just a few people, even when it was about big things in Unbreakable or Signs the focus was always on a small group of people and how they were affected, thats your strength man. The Last Airbender don't get a big head that movie only did good at the box officw because a certain group of people have some sort of weird addiction to the franchise much like crystal meth. Next film you make limit your cast size, and do as few visual effects as humanly possible. Dont forget we never had to see the train crash in Unbreakable to know how big of an effect it had on everybody, and lastly you don't get to act in your next movie UNLESS you can act in someone else's movie good first."

    One positive that came from this movie was a great rifftrax from the MST3K guys "Their running away from the wind, the only thing less intimidating than that would be low humidity."

    1. The Happening isn't even bad enough to be interesting. I haven't been able to sit through the whole Rifftrax of it yet...and I've had it since it came out.

      (OT - did you hear that Murphy and Corbit are going to be riffing Prometheus live at CONvergence in MN?

    2. Even better news Kathy, this year's Live Rifftrax Show (after "Twilight" fell through) will be "Starship Troopers." See you in August! :-)

    3. "Be Scientific Douchebag" is a great line! I am a very big fan of Zooey's line to John Leguizamo's little girl: "You're just like me Jess, I don't like to show my emotions either."

    4. JM - I'd heard about that. It was on their twitter.

      Don't know why anyone thought there was a hope in Hell they'd get the rights to Twilight. It's still financially viable.

      As long as it's not the 9th, I'll be there.

  4. Wowza... deep shit, dude. I honestly never really thought about messages (outside of the actual movie / theme / societal commentary / etc.) that directors were trying to tell audiences until I started listening to this blog years ago. I know messages within the movie that are trying to say something about society or whatever have always been happening... but between some of FThismovie's thoughts on M. Night, Michael Bay, and Todd Phillips, and what personal message they are trying to tell their audience, I can't help by think a couple million phone calls would just be cheaper!

    Always enjoy the articles and podcasts... keep on keeping on.

    1. Thanks Steve! Good to hear from you.

  5. I've been digesting your article for a while now and there are a lot of interesting ideas there, but the thing I'm having trouble getting past is doesn't Best Buy always smell like onions and gas?

    Also, if your theory is correct, does that then make The Happening a better movie? Because I do struggle with the idea of giving it ANY credit.

    1. OMG that Best Buy comment is great :-)

      Nope, my theory does not make The Happening a better movie. I just think it's super interesting.

  6. A very interesting premise. I distinctly recall seeing Lady in the Water in the theatre (I still had hope then), and being amazed at the overwhelming ego on display. I mean, casting yourself as the future savior of humanity? And then that ridiculous story about Story and the scrunts, or whatever. That woman and her mother are supposed to be Korean, right? Does "scrunt" sound even vaguely Asian to you?

    Alas, the early reviews of After Earth do not suggest that M Night is experiencing his second renaissance. I think it's time to accept that the guy is a hack who happened to have a few good movies in him.

  7. Great article Adam...not sure if "The Night" really intended all of that, but your case is made so perfectly that I am going to live the rest of my life believing it to be true.