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Nature strikes back

Film>> The Happening written & directed by Manoj Night Shyamalan

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Thursday 31 July 2008


Nature gone wild has been a common theme in Hollywood since a bunch of oversized ants freaked audiences out of their plush seats in Douglus Gordon's 1954 flick Them. Since then, tinseltown studios have dished out multitudes of killer tornadoes, catastrophic hurricanes and chemically-mutated apparitions, where various elements of nature have been shown as developing an apparently conscious will to kill humans without any scientific assistance. Manoj Night Shyamalan's The Happening draws a lot from this sub-genre, but with trademark Shyamalan equivocations. The Happening transforms the 'nature gone wild' motif from animal/insect/weather threats into vegetation/environmental threats even while remaining shifty about the fact that nature is the main perpetrator of the piece.

Sudden death
The film begins on a summer morning in New York's Central Park, with a woman shocked to see that her fellow bench-warmer has punctured her jugular with a hair pin. Within moments, hairpins are used for suicidal puncturing all over the park and men and women drop like flies from a mysterious lemming-like impulse that makes them kill themselves. Predictably, the carnage is ascribed to terrorists.

Down to Earth
In the film, strange chilling deaths that defy reason erupt in American cities

As the grisly suicides rage the country, Elliot Moore, a Philadelphia high-school science teacher, heads out of town on a train with his fiance Alma, and another teacher, Julian, who brings along his young daughter. The train conductors soon lose contact with the outside world, forcing passengers into the Pennsylvania backwoods, where the pestilence overtakes them.

The film is at its best when, in the backwoods, Elliot and his dwindling posse fret over various theories to the carnage. A terrorist attack? A government experiment gone awry? A fluke virus? Or could it be, as a quirky gardening expert suggests, defensive toxins released from plants?

The movie throws out some of the above as possibilities, making the case for others, but not always very subtly. Shyamalan does a reasonably good job of building up the sense of danger, from rumour through panic to mass death and the potential for apocalypse. But sometimes his bag of tricks gets a tad trite--a child's empty swing sways in the wind, characters stand locked in place, eyes wide and mouths gaping.

One of Shyamalan's strengths, evident in his earlier films, most noticeably in The Sixth Sense, is that he knows how to withhold enough information. But in The Happening he lets the kitty out of the bag too early. The cause of the mass-suicides, deadly airborne toxin descending on north-east America from Massachusetts to Maryland, is let out too early. The equivocations over their origin do help sustain some interest. Does our ecological abuse of the planet have a horrible sting in the tail? Have plants instigated a well-coordinated attack against their arch enemy? However, by the time the story shifts to a small town where people are hanging from trees in neat geometrical formation, the image of mass suicides has been sapped of its shock value.

To be fair, The Happening, doesn't fall into the pits of tinseltown hell. This reviewer certainly preferred it to the gore dished out by The Incredible Hulk or Hancock. But The Happening could have done a lot better with strong characters. After all, some of the most potent nature-gone-amuck movies have been built on strong characters. Alfred Hitchcock's Birds, possibly the ultimate in the genre, starts with strong characters and develops them through the crucible of an apocalyptic nightmare. Shyamalan, in contrast, sacrifices character to situation.

Elliot Moore is the only well-realized character among the major cast. But there is very little spark between and his fiance Alma. Instead, Moore has to mouth unconvincing blather about scientific reasoning, while Alma mumbles incoherently that she has trouble showing emotion. A few side players--the soldier and the quirky horticulturalist in particular--manage to make their characters resonate.

Shyamalan did a fair job with the idea of the unseen threat in The Sixth Sense and Signs. But the struggle of most of the characters in The Happening seems passive. Most times Shyamalan has trouble getting the audience to care deeply about his characters' plight or even their deaths.

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