October 15, 2008

The drained world

Science, knowledge, learning … all that stuff is useless in the face of the slow, passive threat, the art-directed apocalypse, in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. This is a strangely gentle, inert and suspense-less horror film – a horror film without any genuine menace, all effect and no cause. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and others run from nothing in particular, just a plague of unattributed deaths, a suicide contagion, in a drained and introverted world. What is Shyamalan getting at? Maybe this. In its open-endedness – among the possible causes invoked are planetary payback, terrorists and “the government” – this thing might be meta-comment about the impossibility of making a straight-forward disaster movie in a world of so many real threats (war, terror, climate, nukes in Asia, now the economy) where even traditional movie monsters are routinely read as modern-anxiety metaphors. Zombies are really consumers and War of the Worlds is really about al-Qaeda. So Shyamalan gives us just the metaphor without the monster (or the sizzle without the steak). Which is in keeping with how he's been working all along, presenting horror's structures as symbolic maps for stories that are really about troubled relationships. In Signs, the Shyamalan film that this most resembles, the aliens became a hypothetical threat to direct Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) towards a mystic-religious message about the power of love. So it is here, only with the threat even further backgrounded, as the passing disaster acts as couples therapy for Elliot and Alma.

You might see that as colossally narcissistic as well as deeply conservative. But as an auteur, he's been doggedly persistent, and not just in his cool perfectionism. I’ve written before about Shyamalan’s obsession with big-city crime. It gets yet another airing here: as Elliot flees Philadelphia, there’s a quick shot of a newspaper headline about soaring murder rates – “Killadelphia”. So, regardless of any world-destroying toxic threat, you’re already better off in the country, in small groups, away from the bulk of humanity. Which is where Elliot and Alma end up -- “We’re in a small town, nothing can happen to us here,” he says. Eventually we reach a remote country house that could be a scene from 100 years ago or more, where a “Mrs Jones” gives the small girl who travels with the pair a lesson in decent, old-fashioned manners. The past is safer.

And knowledge is useless? This marks Shyamalan out once again as a man with a mystical bent. Elliot’s maths teacher friend believes in percentages and winds up dead; a girl who is getting confused repeats “calculus … calculus” like a malfunctioning robot. Why rely on numbers and logic? Trust the man who talks to the wind, the trees, the spirits. The only person with any valuable learning here is the guy who communicates with plants – a fellow mystic. This lets Shyamalan make vengeful, all-powerful nature a new version of God’s mysteriousness – as an expert “explains” late in the film, “It’s an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it”.