Like any other type of art, the distinctions between good movies and bad movie are subjective. After all, one man’s nigh unwatchable stinkburger is one internet column’s entire reason for being; our two sugary scoops of raison d’être, if you will. And then there are those bad movies which only become bad when people commit the heinous offense of…looking at them. Take for example M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. No, seriously, take it. Take it far far away from us.
Shyamalan is a filmmaker known for his tricky third-act twists, and The Happening is no exception. Of course, the twist in The Happening was that Shyamalan’s brain was slowly leaking out of his ear canals the entire time he was directing; the leak caused by a direct smack on the head with the proverbial coo coo stick.
Since The Happening’s release, film pundits and those who don’t use words like pundit alike have been scratching their heads in a mixture of wonderment and disgust. Disgusterment. The prevailing question, for lack of a better writer hired to pen this column, was what happened with The Happening? During a recent conversation/bacon-ingestion with my good friend, and confirmed snarkplug, Will Goss of Film.com, the overly stilted nature of The Happening’s dialogue was dissected.
We began to wonder if perhaps the biggest problem with The Happening was merely the medium in which it was exhibited. In other words, was the film suffering from the fact that it was a film?
It became apparent that M. Night Shyamalan misjudged the true potential of his magnum hopeless, as it seemed like it would shine as a radio play. True, it’s an art form long considered dead, but then long-dead could also aptly describe Shyamalan’s credibility. Sorry, that joke was made with the understanding that we would be inserting audio files of rimshots directly into the articles from now on. Guess that didn’t happen.
At any rate, we decided to pose and test a very simple hypothesis.
Hypothesis: The Happening functions better as a radio play than as a movie.
Experiment: View The Happening without its visuals, listening only to the audio track.
Variables: Cool Ranch or Classic Nacho Cheese?
Conditions: Dimly-lit living room sofa. A laptop open in front of me to take notes and to view this suitably creepy image of a tree as my only visual.
Our mustache-twirling villain.
The Bone-Chilling Results:
01:04 — Without visuals, the creepy credit music is like the long lead-in to a classic radio drama. One could imagine a voice-over stating, “It’s the Hackney’s Shampoo Mystery Hour, brought to you by Hackney’s Medicated Shampoo for Split Ends. Hackney’s: When your endings need some work.”
03:18 — So here’s the opening scene. The ambient noise is very distinctive; people running, a dog barking, clearly a busy place. The rustling of trees and laughter of kids more than indicative of a park. The sound establishes the setting at least as well as do Shyamalan’s visuals. Great foley work here.
3:37 — A girl vapidly remarks to her friend, “I forgot where I am.” Her friend’s response is actually quite terrifying without the context the visuals provide: “You’re at the place where the killers meet to decide what to do with the crippled girl.” What?! That’s where she currently is? She should run for her life! Run, stupid! Wait, is she the crippled girl? If so, I feel bad for calling her stupid…and for telling her to run.
03:50 — A distant scream is heard, as disembodied in audio form as it is in the actual film, but somehow more eerie. The friend notices and then notes, “that’s funny, those people look like they’re clawing at themselves. Is that blood?” The cold, distant manner in which the actress states this, on film, comes across as lifeless exposition. Does she actually find it funny? It’s hard to tell from her table read. In audio form, it sounds like she’s explaining plot elements that the audience is precluded from witnessing.
This actually brings us to the first overall characteristic of The Happening that makes it well-suited for radio play transformation: Shyamalan wrote this movie for blind toddlers. The characters explain nearly everything they do and see even if we, the sight-endowed audience can see those actions for ourselves. It’s the principal failure of the film’s direction. However, were this film to be consumed aurally instead of… with the ocular parts, that story force-feeding becomes a valuable tool.
04:29 — Clare, our first speaker, is suddenly unresponsive to her friend as the ominous music swells. With the line she finally mumbles out, “what page was I on…page,” we’ve retroactively established that she was reading a book and also that something is going awry in her brain cabinet.
04:48 — Wind howls, scary time music, fleshy stabbing sound. Somebody must be dead.
05:05 — Police sirens. A crisis looming.
05:12 — City noises and construction worker banter. Perfect for establishing a different location.
05:35 — We hear a crash. Since we can’t see anything, and assuming we hadn’t seen the film, we wouldn’t know what it was. But then a construction worker specifically states, “Christ, Mackenzie fell.” Again, visually this is cheesy because the workers all saw the guy fall, as did the audience, so verbally confirming that someone did indeed fall is unnecessary. However, this establishes for the listening audience that all future instances of that same sound are in fact other people falling. When we hear that sound again and again, it is horrifying (and horrifyingly effective)
06:44 — Moody music ceases, new person speaking, clearly a new location and new character. It becomes abundantly clear within seconds that he is a teacher; also abundantly clear is that he’s a total dork.
06:48 — Mark Wahlberg’s silly “what’s going on with the bees?” speech actually sounds slightly less silly when you can’t see that mental chasm of white noise that doubles for his facial expressions in this movie. I mean seriously, he looks perplexed and frustratingly detached the whole time. It’s as if someone had always just finished telling him, “I loved you in Good Will Hunting.”
09:45 — The principal informs the teachers that there has been a so-called terrorist attack in New York. He also establishes that an airborne chemical toxin was used and establishes the symptoms brought upon by what we later know are not terrorist devices, but instead weapons of grass destruction.
And so soon into proceedings, we reach another recurring element that allows for The Happening to function beautifully as a radio play. Nearly all of the characters on screen at any point in time are receiving information secondhand. This makes sense to a point, the confusion and panic of a global event yadda yadda yadda, but Shyamalan uses it so much that audiences watching the actual movie get bored with the constant barrage of exposition.
Orson Welles as Mark Wahlberg
11:07 — Established: John Leguizamo is another teacher, he likes statistics, he has a cellphone. He offers his mom’s house as a safe haven outside the city. We now know where our heroes will be going, i.e. the next progression of the plot, and we never have to see a thing.
11:55 — Through ham-fisted dialogue between Leguizamo and Wahlberg, we know that a girl named Alma is Wahlberg’s special lady friend and that they are having problems. Her supposed infidelity, which we later find out is a load of melodramatic codswallop, is telegraphed from the word go. Here, Leguizamo makes comments about her crying on her wedding day. This is followed in the next scene by the sound of a buzzing cellphone (or portable marital aide judging by the sound of it) that goes unanswered, and then later, once we figure out who owns the raucous cellphone (or, again, portable marital aide), we hear it answered and then immediately snapped closed once another man’s voice is briefly heard. Later still, we hear Alma answer it and tell the man on the other end to stop calling and refers to events that transpired between them. Again, Shyamalan beats us over the head with this subplot so hard that it works perfectly without visuals.
13:28 — Ah, the news reel. Long utilized as a quick way to deliver pertinent information to the audience when nuance is too time-consuming. In The Happening, the newscasts on TV function like glaring neon signposts telling us exactly how the film’s screenplay looked in skeletal form on that cocktail napkin. Again, the characters get their information secondhand so these newscasts amount to about 90% of the discovery factor in the movie. In this moment, a woman gives a textbook explanation of the brain’s self-preservation mechanism and how the neurotoxin from the rampant attacks shuts that down. We now know definitively, without seeing the woman at the beginning stab herself in the neck or the construction workers leaping to their doom, that the majority of the deaths in this film will be self-inflicted. Thanks, exposition machine!
14:00 — Just in case you thought Shyamalan was trusting you too much to make that aforementioned deduction, here’s Zooey Deschanel to reiterate it like a starry-eyed, doomsday-obsessed child, “it makes you kill yourself, just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil that could be invented.” Helpful if you’re only listening and not watching, but come on, Deschanel, who actually thought there was no more evil that could be invented?
Read on if you dare! And remember to drink delicious chocolate Ovaltine!