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Through the Looking Glass of Paranoia: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening

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Through the Looking Glass of Paranoia: M. Night Shyamalan’s <em>The Happening</em>

M. Night Shyamalan has a sixth sense for commercial filmmaking, yet unlike his big-budget brothers in the industry, he eschews the gross application of obvious big-budgetness. He creates tension by suggesting forces supernatural (at work behind the scenes) or nascent (developing within his characters’ psyches).

In order to survive, Shyamalan’s heroes must master themselves, and victory comes together with an arrival at self-knowledge. If The Twilight Zone were revived again, Shyamalan would be the perfect host/writer/director, introducing stories in which everyday Americans step through looking glasses of paranoia to see at last that they are the mannequins, they are the spirits haunting the living world.

Shyamalan’s latest work, The Happening, is a typical articulation of his at once artistic and commercial venture. As in his earlier films, he introduces an American type, in this case the ever-boyish Mark Wahlberg as a spurned husband and science teacher. Wahlberg uses his science training to solve the largest of contemporary threats: an anthropomorphized natural world striking back against the population of New England. Never mind how this storyline enacted itself more realistically against the population of New Orleans. For Hollywood, New York and Los Angeles will always be the true ’under siege’ parts of America.

Unlike his other films in which Shyamalan winds his way through plots rich in the supernatural, moving towards jaw-dropping, Rod Serling-esque conclusions, The Happening hints at, yet never produces a final twist. Instead, the work concludes with a clichéd environmentalist message: if humanity doesn’t change its ways, then the earth will fight back.

Like any experienced purveyor of suspense, Shyamalan exploits popular anxieties—honeybees, the C.I.A., chemical warfare, terrorism, nuclear power—yet the cause of disaster and the solution to the mystery is not discovered by its characters so much as it is simply told to them. The lack of Shyamalan’s signature twist—a simultaneous discovery by characters and audienceis not compensated for by the film’s environmentalist message.

Perhaps a more nuanced message would make the film’s conclusion feel less tiring. Perhaps if Shyamalan bothered to script better dialogue (so that his characters came off as less generic types), then the film would hold its own. As it is, The Happening fails to gather sufficient momentum to make it up to that twist, which is essential for Shyamalan’s art as it now exists.

Yet despite the commercial concessions and the disappointing ending, the welcome thing is that Shyamalan is able to instill in simple shots of the wind in the trees a true anthropomorphic malignancy. Special effects lovers will wait expectantly for cartoon imagery, but will come away dissatisfied. Where in the clichéd environmentalist sense, “humanity is the real villain,” the functional villain in The Happening is nowhere and everywhere—in every tree, blade of grass, and gust of wind. Eat your heart out George Lucas.

Will Lasky is a freelance journalist who writes on culture, travel, and business. He blogs at Mike Tyson Vodka and has contributed to 24LiesaSecond.