Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What's 'Happening' Now!!

As much as it pains me to admit, I was one of those goofy naifs who really thought it quite possible that M. Night Shyamalan might be damn near the second coming of Hitchcock when I first saw The Sixth Sense back in 1999.

That movie had its flaws, to be sure, and what everyone referred to as the ingenious "twist" at the end was more than a little overhyped. But, finally here was someone attempting a decent horror film that didn't rely solely on masked axe- or chainsaw-wielding homicidal automatons relentlessly hunting down hormone-addled teenagers to provide its thrills. Shyamalan was attempting to create something more in the suspense mold, and whatever flaws The Sixth Sense may have had, he demonstrated quite a gift for building and maintaining tension until the moment of the big payoff. And even in the midst of the somewhat stilted dialogue there was some fairly thoughtful meditation on the inexpressible loneliness of grief and the hovering presence of death in daily life. There was much promise.

Then he made Unbreakable, which I also thought was a decently entertaining, and yes, even somewhat thoughtful movie. What was particularly impressive was that Shyamalan was already attempting to do something completely different than his previous work--an interesting take on the superhero origin myth--and I could appreciate that. It struck me that maybe Shyamalan was gunning to be the John Sayles of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy genre and would endeavor to create something totally unexpected with each new film, and I was quite thrilled by the prospect. And again, he showed a real gift for progressively building tension. After watching that movie I thought, you know, one of these days this guy is going to make a real masterpiece.

I have a hunch, however, that Shyamalan thought the same thing.

Because then he made Signs.

And Signs really, really sucked.

It was The Night's first bad film since his first little known early efforts, and oh man, when he makes a bad film, he makes a really, really awful stinkbomb of a movie. (In hindsight, the crop circles in the advertising should have been the first red flag. Nothing remotely entertaining or interesting could ever come of a story that kicks off its central conflict with the sudden appearance of crop circles.) What was up with the "alien" at the Brazilian kid's birthday party who looked like some kind of knock-off of Creature From the Black Lagoon??? And talk about your contrived, convoluted, cheesy-ass plots. It didn't help that the clumsy attempts at what I could only guess was intended to be deep, introspective dialogue between the characters merely came off as trite or unintentionally comical at best.

Signs has all the marks of a film made by a man convinced of his own genius. Shyamalan was praised to the heavens for The Sixth Sense, his first big feature, which also got him several Oscar nominations and made bucket loads of cash at the box office to boot. While not quite as hyped as Sixth Sense, Unbreakable gave him a lot of glowing reviews by critics who clearly still viewed him atop a pedestal (though some were already growing weary). Signs, unfortunately, showed that he believed his own hype, and that is absolute death for any artist. The movie was one long pontificating diatribe on the subject of faith that simultaneously revealed how seriously the filmmaker took himself and all the reasons why he shouldn't. It was like Stephen King meets Deepak Chopra, and I for one was having none of it.

Once bitten, twice shy. I vowed to never again waste any of my scarce time on this planet viewing aesthetic train wrecks like Signs. A once promising talent had clearly degenerated into dimwit-serioso, pop New Age religious-mystical nonsense. (I was aware of that sensibility being at work to some extent in The Sixth Sense, but it wasn't nearly as intrusive as it was in Signs, and it certainly wasn't nearly as present in Unbreakable.) From then on I would wait to hear some word of mouth before venturing into another theater to see a new M. Night Shyamalan film.

Word of mouth only got worse.

After Signs came The Village, and after The Village came Lady in the Water. Both were excoriated by the critics, as well as by friends of mine whose opinions I trust. I admit I don't know much about The Village other than that everyone in it looks Amish. All I've ever seen of this film is the trailer, judging from which it appears to be a story about some fierce woodland creatures terrorizing some frontier settlers because They Who Must Not Be Named get really pissed off by the sight of the color red for some odd reason. And Lady in the Water appears to be about some waifish young lady who lives in the swimming pool of the apartment complex where Paul Giamatti works as the building superintendent. She speaks in very hushed tones because that's considered, you know, ooooooooo, really creee-eeeepy, or such is my guess. All I know is that both were pretty much panned by the critics and made ample grist for many of my friends' one-line jokes, which they found quite hilarious but were utterly lost on me because I had not seen--and probably never will see--either film.

But still I thought it might be possible for The Night to redeem himself. I yet held hope that he might ditch the silly New Agey theorizing and navel-gazing in favor of something far more satisfying. Mind you, I wasn't expecting some mind-blowing masterpiece. If anything, I hoped against hope that he wouldn't try so damn hard to make a mind-blowing masterpiece, as that was clearly his major obstacle. The man was, and is, quite talented, and for the sake of what he was (I assumed) trying to accomplish--a reinvention of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy genre in film--I pined for the day when that talent would once again produce something at least marginally worthy of it.

Now, my expectations have been really quite low. I've been willing to settle for something only mildly entertaining, or even just an interesting little diversion. Even if he delivered something that was just a step up from watching a pair of ants crawl up a wall, that would have been a major improvement on the last film of his that I had seen.

It would appear that he chose to make The Happening instead.

Again, haven't seen it. Here's the trailer. Yup. Looks like crap.

Every review I've read pretty much hints at or outright confirms my worst suspicions.

You might object, "Aaaaawww, but ya can't trust the critics, Bob! They're a bunch of effete, know-it-all elitist blowhards who wouldn't know 'entertainment' if it popped out of their toilets and bit them on their rear ends." Well, sometimes this is true, and sometimes it isn't.

From what I gather, this is the plot:

Mark Wahlberg, a high school science teacher, is called out of his class one morning and told of some sort of mass hysteria in which people are suddenly killing themselves in very graphic and disturbing ways, and some type of airborne neurotoxin is widely suspected to be the culprit.

Leaving aside the believability of a neurotoxin making people do horrible things to themselves, I can't imagine how the characters in the film arrive at the conclusion that any kind of external agent is involved at all without it becoming anything other than a silly and contrived explanation, if the film even tries to explain that at all. I suspect that articulating the silly "toxin-is-making-people-kill-themselves" premise only lessens the dramatic tension of the film. Perhaps it would in fact be far creepier to not offer any kind of explanation at all. But what do I know? I'm not the one who was given millions of dollars by a major production company to make a horror film.

But whatever the explanation is, it seems to appeal to people who almost gleefully anticipate the ludicrous prospect of "Mother Earth" one day lashing out at us humans to learn us good and hard. That sort of raises a red flag for me. (As if many human beings aren't punished enough by the endless cycle of warfare inflicted by various groups of other human beings known as "governments.")

So Wahlberg and his wife Zooey Deschanel hit the road to escape this encroaching airborne toxin. How they know which direction to go without catching a whiff of the poison floating through the open air is something else that I'll bet makes for a hilarious lesson in B-movie science. Oh, and they're a childless couple--which naturally is a cause of tension between the two--until Wahlberg's buddy John Leguizamo happens to leave his daughter in their care while he goes off in another direction in search of his wife. Aaaaawwww, the childless couple get a kid after all, and I'm sure that together they learn all sorts of invaluable life lessons in the face of massive human tragedy.

If this film is trying to convey the message that the bright side of wide scale disaster and human suffering is that it "brings people together," I would probably vomit right into my popcorn.

Oy. Contrived and stupid, if you ask me.

There may be, however, some hope yet for The Night.

I hear tell that he's set to make the film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I don't know much about this animated series, having only caught one episode while recently channel surfing one afternoon, but it interested me enough to look out for other episodes. It's a martial arts/magic/fantasy type thing in which a young "Avatar" comes to grips with growing up while fighting off the aggressions of the "Fire Nation." (I really haven't seen enough of this show to form any definite opinion of it as of yet. Perhaps I'll comment further in a future post.)

Here's why I think Avatar might be Shyamalan's saving grace: The story isn't his own. For the sake of his once promising career, I hope he has the foresight not to dip his hands into the screenwriting one iota and instead leaves it entirely up to someone else--such as the creators of the original series, perhaps--to work up the script. This, I think, is the key. He wrote his last six films himself (for reasons of fairness, I'm not including his early work just out of film school), and the last four of those films were (reportedly) quite, quite dreadful. He has decent storytelling skills--with the camera, but not necessarily with the written word. It's not a pretty thing to say to a film director, "Gee, you sure know how to place the camera in order to get pretty and interesting--even stunning--pictures, but you write like a 12-year-old who has read way too much Dean R. Koontz." But somebody should.

But will The Night be able to set aside his "writer-director" ego long enough to abstain from the scribbling?

Somehow I doubt it.

(Also see: Michael Agger's 2004 piece for Slate, "The Case Against M. Night Shyamalan", and "Five Reasons Not To See 'The Happening'" by Film School Rejects.)

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