I loved the unabashedly zany THE HAPPENING. This is the kind of movie I would have dug on, hard, when I was twelve, and the type of movie for which I still have so much affection. Blood and gore ("M. Night Shyamalan's first R-rated feature," proclaim the commercials). Dread. Post-apocalyptic speculation. Heavy-handed themes, drawn from Major Issues of the Day. THE HAPPENING is as good and bad as The Blob or any movie whose title contains the words "I was a teenage..."
Where to begin? Definitely with the dialogue, which I'll try to re-create from memory. Female lead to mystery man with whom she may have had an affair: "Dude, get over it. It was just tiramisu. Stop acting crazy." Religious zealot: "You eyeing my lemon beverage?" Random survivor of apocalypse to other survivors: "You guys like hot dogs?" Marky Mark: "Why am I talking to a plastic plant?" Never has a b-movie offered so many delicious rhetorical questions.
One of the plot points that raises silliness to a state of zen is when the high school teachers react to the massive catastrophe using their discipline-specific worldviews. The math teacher calculates the probability of a second catastrophe. The science teacher (he of Funky Bunch fame) tries to make sense of the chaos by identifying variables. I was waiting for the language arts teacher to drop some allusions to dystopic fiction.
I also loved the quick and ill-fated devolution of the two middle-class adolescent boys into thuggish behavior. Spencer Breslin puffs out his little chest and says "We've got a hungry little girl out here, bitch!" (another stand-out piece of dialogue, by the way). Several survivors won't share their refuge and these two young suburbanites go all Tupac. And wind up dead. It's an instant, cheesy, allegorical moment: see how important it is to stay civilized. But also a moment where the perennially coveted demographic--teen boys--can sip their Dr. Peppers, grab a handful of buttery popcorn, and nod approvingly at the machismo.
In terms of both plot and tone, the film reminded me of two of my favorite Stephen King novels. First, The Stand, that masterpiece of roundly drawn yet familiar archetypes reacting to the apocalypse. Second, the ultra-violent Cell, King's more recent look at disaster on a grand scale, this time brought on by signals from cell phone towers. Those are two books that revel in genre and seem to drip with affinity for their inspirations. Two books that I love.
Let me say a few things about THE HAPPENING as post 9/11 art. I'm not giving anything away by mentioning that early on the film shows a bunch of New Yorkers jumping from a building to their deaths. This is the scene featured most heavily in the film's trailers, and it's striking and memorable. We see the scene from the perspective of an earnest construction worker (a blue-collar hero) below. What follows is ninety minutes of dread. As I've emphasized, it's campy dread. But dread nonetheless. There's a kind of sadness that permeates THE HAPPENING, from the couple whose marriage is on the rocks, to the best friend character who goes off on a quest for his woman but deep-down knows she's probably dead, to that supporting character's little girl who realizes her parents have most certainly died horrific deaths. Just like the 50s b-movies whose paranoid stance refracted cold war mentalities, THE HAPPENING plods toward its eventuality.
Roger Ebert's somewhat over-the-top review says: "For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act [of Earth's existence]." Ebert's referring, of course, to the film's environmental themes, but I must admit having similar thoughts on the way home from the multiplex, not about the environment but about the more general pessimism of our own age. Our safety is threatened. We must band together against evil. The world has changed. Raising such concerns is one more example of how THE HAPPENING, in so many ways, is wonderfully and provocatively awful. So far, it's the best (worst) movie of the summer. Then again, I haven't seen THE STRANGERS yet.