Saturday, June 14, 2008

"The Happening" - Shyamalan's mega disaster

Well, if you’re a teacher, permanent or substitute, and an administrator calls a bunch you in, and says, “We have an event happening.” You something really bad is going on, in the “Outside World.” And this time, the horror comes with gentle 30 mph winds, like those of a backdoor cold front, moving into the mid-Atlantic states from the Northeast.

We see Marky Mark Wahlberg, a grown man in the past decade, as science teacher Elliot Moore in the Philadelphia public schools. He quizzes his class on what can go wrong the world. Why are the bees disappearing? If they did, mankind would last only four years. (That sounds like a future History Channel Mega-Disaster scenario.) Colony Collapse Disorder? Is it global warming? Pollution? Is it some kind of planetary moral breakdown? He teases a particularly handsome kid Jake (Robert Lenzi) about his good looks, and how they could change before he’s finished growing because of the “biology” of adolescent growth spurts yet to come. That was weird. About to announce the science project assignment, he teases the class with the light switches. Now, I though this whole scene could have been more precise. Have it be tenth grade biology, and show the kids in lab with microscopes, drawing and labeling animal or plant “body parts.” But the principal shows up.

The mega-disaster starts in Central Park, but somehow authorities decide to evacuate Philly (hometown AOL for director M. Night Shyamalan). Moore takes his family on the train west, towards Harrisburg and Three Mile Island. (That’s another theory: another meltdown.) The train stops and dumps them in the wilderness. “We’ve lost contact,” the conductor says. “With everybody.”

Of course, most people now know the pretext of Shyamalan’s latest movie “The Happening” (20th Century Fox, UTV, Spyglass). Just like algae releasing red tide, flowering plants decide to take revenge, communicating through the wind, and release neurotoxins into the air, quickly leading to grisly mass fatalities. I don’t want to dwell on some of the spectacle here, but the concept seems nihilistic. Shyamalan presents the film in “flat” aspect ration 1.85:1 and did not want to use the anamorphic Cinemascope wide screen. That keeps the film somewhat intimate and small, particular in the second half of the movie when the family is on the run, daring among broken down farmhouses, running from the winds. The movie suggests that it isn’t a good idea for people to congregate. If they stay further apart, the plants don’t target them.

The concept does remind me of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic “The Birds” who attack for no obvious reason other than some accidental insult in San Francisco, as well as Danny Boyle’s taking of London and most of the UK with an epidemic in “28 Days Later” (also from Fox).

The progress of “The Event” as Breaking News in the media (the “World News Network” – apparently CNN did not want to be associated with this tale) is well handled, as the twenty-four hour event is deciphered and quickly determined to be natural in origin rather than a terrorist chemical weapons attack. (One clue: it spreads geographically so quickly.) It can recur at any time if we abuse the planet – as the closing scene in Paris demonstrates.

The film made me think about other scenarios that Shyamalan could explore, such as a social behavioral crisis starting in cyberspace. I won’t give away the details here, but just think about some of the recent news. (And, no, I haven’t put my Final Draft script for this online.)

Despite the rather unfavorable reviews, I found opening night performances in northern VA at AMC theaters sold out. I had to buy in advance.

There was a film with the same title in 1967, and I actually saw it in Lawrence KS when in grad school, at the trendy Varsity Theater on Massachusetts Street downtown. The film, from Columbia and directed by Eliot Silverstein, has some bored hippies (“nothing is going to happen”) kidnapping a Mafia figure, and featured a very popular song.

There was a black and white half-hour TV series called "Science Fiction Theater" on Sunday nights in the 1950s. There were scenarios like a woman turning into a plant. The byline was, "it hasn't happened, but could it happen?"

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