Mark Shea pointed me to an article by Matthew Mehan at Mercatornet which tries to make the case that M. Night Shyamalan’s box office bomb, The Happening, is better than people thought because it has a crypto pro-life message.
Mehan does a pretty good and semi convincing job of ferreting out some plot elements that could be considered to be a critique on the culture of death. Please not that there may be spoilers ahead.
High school biology teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is married to the beautiful but sullen Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who is afraid to have children – like so many others. A young boy, with whom the couple flees from the happening, raises the topic. “Are ya married?… Yes….Got kids?… We’re waiting…. For what?… Huh?!… In marriage you gotta take responsibility.” Shocked, Elliot stops the conversation. But in the tender closing scene, shot from a great distance, the couple is celebrating a positive pregnancy test.
Population and reproduction are placed front and centre. In the opening scene Elliot is asking his students to employ the scientific method to discover why the US population of bees has dropped so dramatically. The students hypothesise. Disease? Parasites? Disorienting cell signals? Elliot counters, “but where are all the bee bodies?” Teacher and students ignore an obvious scientific answer: the bees are not reproducing. This “B movie” does not let the audience ignore the missing bodies of the stifled next generation.
I think some of of Mehan’s extrapolations are interesting and perhaps even semi-convincing, but I think that Mehan misses the larger overall point. This is a really bad movie. Mehan makes the case that many critics didn’t get the crypto message and therefore panned the movie unfairly. I don’t think so. There are many really bad movies with good messages. Even if you cede the point about some underlying messages, the movie still stunk.
Moreover, you cannot overlook the really silly over-arching message of the movie by only looking for hidden messages. The overall plot to this movie is that we are mean to the environment and the environment is fighting back. Now while I admit that I am not pre-disposed to be enthralled by a vengeful Gaia plot, it does not mean it couldn’t have been done well. Look at Hitchcock’s The Birds as an example. There the plot is equally simple, we have used and abused nature and nature, with birds as the proxy, is fighting back. The difference there is that it was well done. You cared about the characters and you experienced genuine dread. For me, none of that existed in The Happening.
In fact, I was hoping that the trees would hurry up and finish Mark Wahlberg off, because I didn’t know how much more I could take. I actually like Wahlberg as an actor, but he was terribly lost in this horrible film. But by contrast, Wahlberg deserved an Oscar compared to his co-star Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel apparently has become convinced that opening your eyes really wide until they look like saucers is all one need to do to be a good actor. I was dreading her screen time more than the killer trees.
One additional note again contrasting with Hitchcock’s The Birds, Shyamalan was way off target in trying to explain everything. The hows and whys of nature’s retribution should have remained a mystery. Hitchcock never overtly bothered with such explanations and the movie was much better for it. In fact, in The Birds the circumstances were much more of a happening. This thing happened, you figure out why. Shyamalan’s defense mechanism theory was strained and unconvincing. He would have been much better served had the main characters merely tried to survive rather than explain.
So with all due respect to Mr. Mehan, culture of life subterfuge or no, this is a very bad movie. Now if you want to talk about Unbreakable, that is another story.