A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray...
-Alfred Joyce Kilmer
Who would have guessed that the world would end (sort of...) with a whimper instead of a bang? At least if we consider the "revenge of nature" story depicted in the new film, The Happening. In this film, man's destruction is carried like a whisper on the wind.
Of this, however, I do know for certain: the cinematic works of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan tend to fiercely divide modern film-goers. Some of the smartest, most film centric people I know despise his work deeply. And they have their reasons. I've heard them, and I respect them.
Others - of equally good taste, I hasten to add - find the director's work fascinating and love with a passion every film he's crafted. His titles, in case you've forgotten include: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2001), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006) and this summer's The Happening (2008).
Personally, I enjoy Shyamalan's work very much. I admire a few of his films with reservations (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), love a few of them with admittedly irrational exuberance (Signs, The Village) and am deeply, irrevocably conflicted about one (Lady in the Water). As for The Happening...the good news is that it's far better than Lady in the Water.
But the reason I consistently appreciate M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker is that he -- like John Carpenter, Mira Nair or even Rob Zombie -- makes films that are uniquely his own. They come straight from his soul; from his heart and you ALWAYS know when you are watching one of his efforts. It is impossible to mistake his work for that of any other director. That fact alone certainly doesn't mean his films are always perfect (any more than every Carpenter or Zombie film is perfect...) but in today's suffocating climate of cookie-cutter blockbusters, Shyamalan's work stands apart as that of a true individual; a true artist. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that his films represent the consistent oeuvre of one (sometimes flawed) storyteller. I find his individuality refreshing and commendable, and when people are bashing him, what they are really saying, I think, is: that's not my thing. He's not my guy.
Okay, well that's not always the case either...but that's what I sense when I hear intelligent people complain about his work. Like I said, they have their reasons and those reasons are valid...it's sort of just how you weigh those flaws against other facets of his work, I guess, that results in your binary decision of "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."
The most ill-founded criticism of Shyamalan comes from my own peeps, alas -- film critics taking pot shots at his films over "the twist" ending scenarios portrayed in his features. Pick-up any mainstream review of a Shymalan film in a newspaper and you'll find critics who are complaining that the twist either works (meaning they didn't see it coming...) or that it doesn't (meaning they saw it coming and guessed it correctly). Sometimes different critics report different problems with the same twist ending, which shows you just how hard it is to please people.
For example, the reviews I've read about The Happening tend to be disappointed because there is no twist ending. So now Shyamalan is being reviewed on the basis of what's not in his film? Nice. I think this really stinks; and is brutally unfair to the artist: to reduce a director's work to whether or not there is a twist ending and whether or not it subjectively works. If Rod Serling were making The Twilight Zone today, I bet he'd get the same wrong-headed notices. Why do I say they are wrong headed? Well, in my experience you can't judge an entire film on whether or not you were successfully tricked...that's just poor movie reviewing.
Secondly, after watching all of Shyamalan's films several times (save for The Happening, which I've seen just once), I would argue that the director doesn't make films with twist endings at all. Critics just misperceive them that way.
On the contrary, Shyamalan makes films that reveal more than one perspective. We are watching them from one perspective, only to learn -- often in the last act -- that our perception, our perspective was wrong to begin with. We often learn this fact right beside the main characters, which makes the characters sometimes tragic; sometimes all the more human. Technically, this approach isn't a twist: rather this is a clever director dramatizing for us a story from a variety of angles. If he cheats all the way through, there's reason to be angry, I suppose. If he's consistent and we're surprised or touched, I suggest we have reason to feel satisfied. How many films even have one perspective to begin with? In M. Night Shyamalan's work we are fortunate enough to have a filmmaker who can see that his story has shades; and more to the point -- reveal to us those shades. That takes talent, and no small amount of subtlety. We think we're seeing one thing; but we're actually seeing something else all together.
Tell me: the second time you watch The Sixth Sense, what's the "twist?" Ditto Unbreakable? And heck, what's the twist the first time you watch Signs?
See? Critics have pigeonholed Shyamalan as a "twist" director and so they all review every one of his films based on that viewpoint. And, if you'll forgive the pun -- given the subject matter of The Happening - they've missed the forest for the trees in the process.
Again, I'm not saying you'll like every film this guy makes. I'm just saying that he makes distinctive, individual films (a good thing, no?) and that it is wrong for critics to judge him entirely on the misperception that his films must feature a twist ending. And on top of that, a GREAT twist ending.
Now, I've made the claim that M. Night Shyamalan's films are unique and individual, and so I need to back up that assertion by mentioning a few of his consistent conceits (besides the multiple perception bit). In all of Shyamalan's films (save for Lady in the Water), for example, we see strongly the director's sense of morality. Not his moralizing, mind you, but his morality. And by that, I mean simply that he presents a moral universe where a family unit of some type is forced to countenance with...a happening, for lack of a better word. Sometimes the family unit is "unofficial" (not biological); but there's always a parental figure and a child (or young person) involved in some capacity. In the course of the film, and often because of the "happening," the family learns to move past tragedy and grow closer. You could even argue that the family in Lady in the Water is actually a community - a larger family, I suppose. Regardless, Shyamalan clearly has an affinity for blending regular family life with the unreal and super-real (whether ghosts, an alien invasion, superheroes, mermaids, or a deadly plague).
But what separates Shyamalan from another family-oriented director (like, say, Spielberg), is that he genuflects to the reality of unhappy endings in life. A mother is killed in Signs. A small girl loses both her biological parents in The Happening, and so forth. There's a shocking scene in this film when two young boys are shot in cold blood. In these tragedies, the survivors don't merely learn to grow closer, they somehow express a dawning sense of spirituality; and an acknowledgment of their interconnectedness. This is not religiosity (which is totally different), but true spirituality. Things like fate (in who survives and who doesn't) and belief and synchronicity are examined in the director's films in the most oblique and often wonderful ways.
I believe that these twin ideas of synchronicity and spirituality are the most important factor in Shyamalan's films, and that's why he often sets his climaxes in small, unspectacular settings. A swimming pool (Unbreakable, Lady in the Water), or basements (Signs, The Happening). It's an unconventional choice - and an uncommercial one as well, but perfectly in keeping with Shyamalan's storytelling ethos. His stories aren't about the alien invasions, superheroes, ghosts or deadly happenings, but rather our simple, emotional, grasping, human response to them.
I am perfectly willing to admit this is my bias but I love that idea. When so many films are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, I welcome the lens of Shyamalan's world view. He may occasionally talk down to us; but he universally comes from a place of intelligence, morality and heart, and frankly those qualities are often missing from today's blockbusters. There is nothing canned or phoned-in lurking in Shyamalan's vision, and even if his vision is occasionally schmaltzy, I dig it. A lot. Mea culpa.
So The Happening? Honestly, It boasts in roughly the same percentages the same strengths and the same flaws as Shyamalan's other films. It is long on heart and short on spectacle. It is long on humanity but short, occasionally, on plot. Like much of his work, it straddles the line between being absolutely inspired and absolutely derivative. At times it stretches for brilliance and achieves it, and at other times it retracts to basic truisms and hackneyed explanations that leave you cursing at their banality.
The film's storyline involves a science teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who is estranged from his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel). One day, this couple (and dozens of other citizens...) flee Philadelphia when what appears to be a terrorist nerve gas attack is responsible for the (gruesome) deaths of many New Yorkers. The attack begins in Central Park, but before long, it seems to be following the Moores to rural Pennsylvania. They continue to flee, in ever smaller population circles, as the entire North East is decimated by an attack that seems to be carried on the wind, but which originates not with foreign fighters...but with Mother Nature.
As I wrote above, this is "Revenge of Nature" film like Frogs (1972), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and Day of the Animals (1977). You know the meme:-- man's pollution causes nature to go haywire in response and self-correction. Only The Happening takes a vegetarian slant on the threat, an idea that has been explored in the sci-fi genre for generations (notably in One Step Beyond's "Moment of Hate" and Space:1999's "The Troubled Spirit.") But perhaps the closest antecedent for The Happening is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, The Birds (1963). There, as you will recall, a swarm of birds suddenly and inexplicably went on the attack and nearly took out an entire town. There was no explanation for the battle and the bird assault ended as mysteriously as it began. Same deal here, save for an entirely unnecessary explanatory coda (more like Psycho than The Birds), in which a talking-head on a cable news show makes an entirely too heavy-handed environmental point. I liked the the message and the metaphor (that by destroying nature we are killing ourselves), but I didn't need the spoon-feeding.
Still, The Happening carries a commendable aura of impending, escalating doom. Put simply, the movie is never less than utterly spellbinding. The characters also grow on you considerably, and viewers will find themselves invested in their survival. John Leguizamo plays a character who sees his end coming from a distance, and his performance is haunting and memorable. The Happening also forges a unique threat unlike any seen before, and makes it clear that this threat is inescapable. Most importantly, the film focuses on the ties that bind us (and the reasons they bind us...) and finds humanity at both his most noble and his most ugly (depending on the person) in a time of crisis.
So sue me: I really, really liked this movie. Yet I have a creeping suspicion I will be one of the few (along with Roger Ebert). Some of you may not like The Happening at all. If you go, try to see it with your mind and heart open and the "twist" you may find at film's end is that there's a lot to inspire you here.