Sunday, June 15, 2008

THE HAPPENING: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Director: Manoj Night Shyamalan
Rating: ****
Runtime: 91 min.
Genre: Thriller, Sci-fi, Drama

Consider this. Robert Preston’s The Cobra Event amplifies, by means of a biochemical terrorist attack, the rare genetic disorder Lesch-Nyhan syndrome to barbarically horrific proportions. Allegedly Bill Clinton was severely alarmed after reading it. The lethal pathogen at the heart of the tale is nuclear polyhedrosis virus, and the early symptoms are of common cold, fever and conjunctivitis. Within a few days the virus eats away the brain, and eventually the victim would reach such ghastly levels of self-cannibalism he would start nibbling over his lips, his eyes and he would tear of his forehead and chew over it and his spine would arch awkwardly and he would kill himself. Preston claims in his note at the beginning of the book, the situation he describes is a definite possibility if his research over biochemical warfare is anything to go by.
Now, consider this. It is commonly accepted fact that a musth elephant is hands down the most dangerous mammal as far as humans are concerned. Glands are secreting and everything inside their heads is so messed up, not even elephants of the same herd sneak anywhere near. Many mahouts are torn apart, or crushed. A musth elephant is known to attack with the sole intention of destruction and mayhem. But there have been very many reports, some documented even on the National Geographic Channel, which speak of elephants, herds of them, sneaking in during the night to the nearby villages, especially in the North East and West Bengal, knocking on the door of those huts gently, and as soon as it is opened the person is ripped apart. These are normal elephants, not the mad musth ones, and this seems to be a deliberate practice. There also have been incidents where trunks look for humans in the huts through the windows. Experts say, the elephants are taking revenge upon us for encroaching upon their territory. Bear in mind, an elephant is probably the closest to humans in displaying emotions as jealousy, love, anger and so on.
I ask you this, which scenario frightens you more? I think it has to be the murdering elephants, for there’s no explanation save what we conceive out of our guilt – say we’re destroying the environment and stuff of that kind. Maybe we aren’t prepared to understand the world we live in to such grave detail, and we tend to humanize it all. Maybe there’re other forces beyond our comprehension, waiting to be understood and all we can muster is to come up with theories or some such nonsense. To come up with percentages, for such figures seem to have a quelling effect on our minds. You doubt it? Take the matter of a salary hike, and actual figures do not in the least seem as impressive as, you know, percentages.
Manoj Night Shyamalan’s The Happening offers the horror and drama of one such scenario that seems to have been cooked up by that amazingly fertile brain of his. It isn’t a story as his other films, but more of a parable, and as in keeping with the writer-director’s style, it mostly concerns and examines the human condition under an attack by what’s apparently nature’s forces. Elliot Moore (Wahlberg), a warm and easy high school science teacher in Philadelphia, has been summoned by the school officials to what is an emergency meeting in the auditorium. The whole staff is down here and so is Elliot’s good friend Julian (Leguizamo), and they’re asked to flee the big city, since early reports seem to indicate the entire north-eastern part being affected. We learn both of them are married, Elliot has a wife in Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Julian has a daughter in Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and they all head for the railway station in a hurry.
It is a mass exodus there; not running and jumping and screaming and falling and stampeding as if a bomb exploded, but silently calmly and in a clueless fashion, for no one knows what the terror is, or what is to be terrified of. Just reports that people are killing themselves in huge numbers on cellphones. The train stops in the middle of nowhere and that is just about as far I’ll go revealing the narrative.
There’s something to be taken away from the fact that all his previous films have clocked just a shy less than two hours, and this one here is a good 15 min. shorter than any of them. Scenes aren’t developed and everything feels so rushed. Shyamalan’s films have been known to have a leisurely pace, and that is why we end up being engulfed by that world of his creation. After all the criticism his films post The Sixth Sense have earned, it feels as if the studio gave him a finishing time under which to wrap the picture. It is a shame, for criticizing Shyamalan has become the in-thing without understanding the nature of his work. I would be waiting for the Director’s Cut, if there would be one and I hope the picture in it is longer and more beloved to the filmmaker.
Look, this isn’t a scary film and anybody who would assume that this one would be wrong, just as none of Shyamalan’s films are pure horrors. Scares are mere ingredients, and here there are a few he pulls out of his bag like the wizard he is. A couple of them feel gratuitous though, like the one with the lady who puts her cellphone on speaker, and we hear strange noises.
What he captures rather is the nature around us, with trees swaying back and forth diligently. None of it plays out as sinister, or as if some evil is looming large. Rather, in those shots there feels something melancholy, as if the characters do not belong there, and they are being asked to leave. Not many words are spoken in the opening shots, and yet they fill you with immediate tragedy. I’m surprised this film has been released in the middle of summer, a quite introspective film thrown against the spectacle CGI-filled behemoths. There’re heartwarming characters in there, with heartwarming performances from Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo, and you want them to be safe. You wonder what they did to deserve this, and through that you fall upon your answer. The film lets you imagine, and you feel a part of that world. That is the genius of the man.
Strangely, I do not feel my heart wants to belong to this review. I guess I have a fair idea as to why, and much of it is due to Shyamalan. He might the first to disagree, but Shyamalan makes those rare films which blossom fully not in a theatre, but in the solitude of your own company. They have a spiritual and emotional gravity to them we would much rather experience alone. I saw the film in a theatre full of people on a Friday night, and I’ll be catching a morning show soon, on one of these weekdays in the hope there will no one around. And I got to tell you the people I saw it with didn’t like it one bit. There were curses being hurled at the man, as was the case after The Village and Lady in the Water, and I suspect some of them were expecting a twist ending. I have struggled for two days now, to reveal it or not, more so because I belong to the conservative school of thought – the one which tries to reveal nothing by way of the plot for maximum audience discovery. I seem to have arrived at the conclusion though that the disclosure might help you watch the film in a better perspective, as it so much deserves. I’ll take the plunge, I seek forgiveness, and I tell you now there is no twist ending.
I admire the way he doesn’t offer an explanation. Maybe it could be interpreted as his revolt against the twist endings that have been attributed to him. Or maybe it could be the demand of the story. Shyamalan is a great optimist, and with the way he has ended the picture, he has struck on both the deals – he hasn’t compromised on his optimism and he has neither compromised on the film’s threat. How I wish he had directed the upcoming remake of The Birds, for amongst the current filmmakers there’s none more gifted to helm a Hitchcock presentation. Signs might have been a homage, but this here is the truest in nature to that film. Shyamalan is that kind of a genius, our premier story teller, and in him I’ll always believe.