Turd Box: The Happening Pt. II
That title took more effort than this entire movie.
In spite of the rep he caught later, M. Night Shyamalan’s first forays into filmmaking were some stunningly original work, all three of which I saw in the theater. The Sixth Sense blew my freaking mind, Unbreakable is maybe the best movie about fatherhood and masculinity I’ve ever seen (and one of my absolute favorites), and I still remember the months of giddy excitement that began at just seeing his name pop up in the trailer for Signs. Thanks to his borderline-Kubrickian command of visual language and ability to convey humanity through a cold, detached presentation, I was convinced that Mr. Shyamalan had earned my undying loyalty.
Then, to my chagrin, and everyone else’s, the burgeoning master kept making movies.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse, particularly now that Split has proven that he’s stopped sucking again, but what followed was a dispiriting slide to say the least. The reviews for The Village were bad enough that I didn’t bother, and the critical pile-on just gathered steam from there. Though he would make two movies that were allegedly even worse after this, my sole theatrical experience of his descent was possibly the worst movie I have ever seen in a theater: The Happening.
As maybe the clearest evidence that he’s a great character actor cursed by his leading-man looks to anchor forgettable crap, The Happening is two straight hours of Mark Wahlberg saying the words “What?!” and “No!” with his voice cranked to maximum incredulousness, which somehow gets exponentially more annoying each time. These two words are vastly more memorable than the horrific, gory suicides punctuating the film, because the suicides have no narrative motivation, by definition: the movie is about plants using wind to force people to kill themselves.
See, it was the days after 9/11, when we were into all that “death is random and we don’t know who the enemy is” bullshit. After Spielberg represented that fear with MASSIVE, INVINCIBLE ALIEN ROBOTS three years prior, Mr. Shyamalan aped the plot of War of the Worlds with a threat that he didn’t visualize in any way, shape, or form. Once our insipid heroes figure out The Rules through more exposition than I previously thought possible, the film begins presaging the suicides with Terrence-Malick-esque shots of leaves rustling in wind, backed with generic minor-key ominousness. We are supposed to take this as terrifying.
It’s a vague, deeply uncinematic threat that wouldn’t work if one liked any of the characters, as opposed to actively rooting for everyone in the movie to die. We have to care about characters’ motivations to invest ourselves in the made-up problems of fake people. Once the plants had made the people brain-dead, they had already stopped being characters in our minds, so we couldn’t care if they killed themselves. Making them vacantly do the deed themselves, rather than being killed, adds a degree of dramatic separation that is fatal to the audience’s ability to give a shit.
Which brings us to Netflix, whose Borg-like quest to dominate every form of hacky, B-grade mediocrity has now expanded to the time-honored tradition of cash-in knockoffs. One of the new overlords of Sunset apparently saw A Quiet Place, a taut, beautifully crafted thriller about the constant fear that consumes all parents (as well as the need to shut their kids up), and ordered their underlings to make them one of those. Since the thing that kills you in their cheap substitute would now be looking instead of talking, they were effectively remaking The Happening, despite ample evidence that no one whatsoever liked that movie.
Thus, Bird Box was shit into existence, and I use that phrase judiciously. The first draft of the source novel was written around the time that The Happening came out, leading author Josh Malerman to worry that it would get “lost in the shuffle,” because it too was based on a malevolent, unseen force that makes people kill themselves. I say the new author misread his own premonition: he felt an ominous sense that his inner-monologue-driven mood piece would be optioned into a movie that sucks almost as hard as The Happening, for basically the same reasons.
Bird Box is so thematically derivative of the better of its two influences that it’s practically a mockbuster of John Krasinski’s propulsive, impressive debut: the Carnosaur to its Jurassic Park, or the The Titanic to its Titanic. However, the unstoppable freaky-ass alien sonic predators, who don’t leave the audience wondering about their form and origin the entire time, and whose meticulously-established rules are not only easy for the audience to follow but actually possible for the characters to obey, are gone. In their place is The Happening’s unfilmable menace of suicide-inducing plant-wind, which is “so beautiful,” allegedly. I had to take their word for it.
As insufferable as Happening’s exposition was, and as incomprehensibly lame as the nature of the enemy turned out to be, at least we found out what the hell the plant stuff was rather than being left to wonder until the end. Explaining the monster or the supernatural threat in a horror flick always kills the terror, but the opposite is true if you never have any goddamn idea what’s going on. The only explanation offered was Lil Rel’s crackpot internet theories — which are to shitty modern thrillers what inexplicably knowledgeable scientists were to 50’s B-movie sci-fi — and when went down that list of random legendary creatures and spirits, I could feel the threat getting vaguer, and myself rapidly losing interest, with each one he named. The examples cited didn’t even describe the thing, anyway. Is it an alien? Diablo? The Illuminati? Do I care?
No, I do not. The Floating Unraked Leaves of Doom got lamer and lamer as time went on, a problem worsened by their inconsistency. The scene where they attacked the car was only really effective thrill in the movie, because it was the only part where the Things physically threatened the characters, yet they still couldn’t exert enough force to break the windows… seriously, screenwriters: pick your rules and stick to them. The rules were the glue of AQP. You make a sound, you die. The closer they are, the quieter you have to be. Kids inevitably make noise, so the danger was constant.
Not so for the danger of kids looking. I have a couple nieces who refuse to keep their clothes on, but I just wasn’t worried about BOY! and GIRL! taking their blindfolds off. It’s not a thing that kids will definitely always do, unlike making a racket. Even worse, the film attempted to split the difference between making us feel Sandra Bullock’s indifference towards the kids and making us care about them ourselves, which can’t work — audiences can’t experience parallel, conflicting emotions. Thus, the kids never become anything more than shapeless plot devices in the suspense-free in media res framing device (which never achieves any momentum whatsoever).
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, this movie had characters in it. In my defense, so did the movie.
Speaking on the only reason this thing got 45 million streams in a week: I’m a Sandra Bullock fan. The Heat is one of the more underrated comedies of the past decade, the “Mustang Sally” shot from Miss Congeniality is a foundational image of my sexual being, and seeing Gravity in IMAX 3DLSD was a theater experience so mind-blowing that I still flash back to it occasionally. My girl gave me nothing in this one. She was petulant and cold, and her emotional distance from parenthood never made any sense. Like, we never got a whiff of who the father was, and she acted like a woman who would’ve been at Planned Parenthood inside of eight weeks, so why was she keeping this kid that she didn’t want? We needed more answers to get into it.
John Malkovich was a standard-issue needlessly hostile asshole, which means he got a standard-issue death redemption. Machine Gun Kelly, the old lady, and the cop were the sort of dangling threads that most screenwriters remember to tie off when they get to the always-important second draft. Seriously, the two young people fucked, left, and were never seen again? How do you not write a one-pager showing their deaths? It’s a horror movie, for Christ’s sake! And while I love Tom Hollander, I can’t even be bothered to get into his bullshit — oh no, he’s opened the blinds! Run! Again, going back to The Happening, once their eyes do the thing, they aren’t characters anymore. They have no motivation. Their suicides have no impact. Full stop.
The perils of screen adaptation take human form in Trevante Rhodes, whose character was an addition for the film. See, every movie needs a love interest, because we all wanna know who the hot people are fucking, and every movie needs a third act, so this movie found both in the form of Mr. Rhodes. He was a walking contrivance, included to die in order to juice the third act’s non-stakes in the wake of an unexplained five-year time jump that made real stakes impossible. Speaking of which, in the long and storied history of killing the black guy first, this movie achieves the impressive feat of killing him before the movie even starts.
Then the vague thing whispers at her, and she stumbles around, and the kids we don’t care about fail to achieve any kind of thematic closure, and we never see the monster even though that’s an ironclad law of horror, then the dumbest part of The Book of Eli happens but you don’t care… Jesus Christ, I hated this movie. If you haven’t seen it, I hope I ruined it for you, and that you neglect to add to this movie’s inexplicably huge viewership numbers. They’re one of the better arguments against democracy I’ve ever come across.
Please don’t watch this shit. See A Quiet Place, and then Glass. My boy has earned another shot.