Wednesday, 17 February 2010
WHEN MOVIES STOP MAKING SENSE
There's a really old method of torture called scaphism, that essentially involves being left to rot in the beating sun while insects use your rectum as an egg sack and turn your innards into a bowel smoothie. That the word "scaphism" itself derives from the Greek for "scooped" or "hollowed out" should give you some measure of its savagery. Death is inevitable but never sudden. It's long and arduous and immeasurably painful, and for those poor, pitiless victims, quite simply the feeling of being eaten alive.
Having said that, at least they'll never have to watch The Happening, the latest thriller from one-man incredulity factory M. Night Shyamalan. Because if there's one movie in recent years that faithfully reproduces in celluloid the flesh-eating, diarrhea-inducing fun of scaphism, then this is it. In many ways, it's a triumph, in that it's a film called The Happening in which nothing actually happens. It's like calling your movie The Day The Earth Stood Still and then having the Earth carry on as usual when the spaceship lands, as if somehow the annihilation of the planet was entirely secondary to completing a sudoku, or knocking one out over the latest issue of Record Collector.
The basic premise of The Happening is that plants have had enough of your shit and they just aren't going to take it any more. They're so angry at humankind for screwing up the planet that they unleash some kind of deadly toxin or spore into the air which causes general havoc and makes bad actresses walk backwards and kill themselves. Mark Wahlberg plays the worst science teacher in the world, Elliot Moore, a man so inept he goes around making unscientific observations like "the event must have ended before we went out today" while pretending that his wife, played by Zooey Deschanel, could ever love anyone so insipid. We follow him and a bunch of social inebriates around an assortment of fields and country lanes and other locales of terror and death, all the while hoping that, like Bill Clinton at a frat party, they do not inhale. True, it's hard not to love any film that has, as its key action sequence, a scene in which the protagonist successfully out-runs the wind (the wind!) but even taking into account the usual suspension of disbelief that comes with genre twaddle, The Happening shows a disregard for logic that's borderline insane.
The movie's first big lie is a bit of a no-brainer, the idea that somehow plant life can consciously and collectively defend itself against the human race. To clarify, and I admit to you at this point that I'm not a botanist: plants cannot under any circumstances seek revenge against humankind. Even if they wanted to, and until there is definitive proof that plants have developed fully-formed consciences, it's unlikely they'll ever really "want" to do anything, there are just too many obstacles in the way. The inability to bear a grudge, for one. And unless you're either (a) a Triffid, or (b) Audrey 2 from Little Shop Of Horrors, then walking around, wreaking all kinds of freaky botanical mayhem and freaking out sexually frustrated shopkeepers, well, that's probably a non-starter too. Put it this way, no matter what you think, when nettles sting, they don't do it out of spite. A little schadenfreude, maybe, but never spite. (Let's be honest here, Audrey 2 was an anomaly - for all that "feed me, Seymour" rubbish, it's really anyone's guess as to whether the results could be successfully reproduced in laboratory conditions. And the Trifffids were an alien race intent on the invasion and ultimate destruction of Earth, so they don't count.) Anyway, the whole lack of consciousness thing? BIG problem.
The film's second big porky is slightly less frivolous, namely that science as you know it is ENTIRELY WRONG. Check out the classroom scene right at the beginning of the film, before all that crazy killer spore action kicks off, in which Mark Wahlberg's character argues that "science will come up with some reason to put in the books but in the end it'll just be a theory." Now presumably he got his degree from the same place as Gillian McKeith because this really is, to be perfectly frank, a schmorgasbord of piss and shit. At this point, I defer to the US National Academy of Sciences, which defines "theory" as thus:-
"Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena."
It's telling that Shyamalan uses a common misappropriation of "theory" rather than the more specific and, you know, scientific definition. More than anything, it exposes his suspicion that science isn't the best tool to help is unravel the mysteries of a complex and beautiful universe. Because of this reluctance to understand, and despite a convenient conclusion in which the inital threat abruptly and absurdly disappears, The Happening ultimately comes across as a very bleak film, one that suggests humans are incapable of establishing pragmatic solutions for any kind of anomalistic occurence. Instead, in Shyamalan's convoluted narrative, things just tend to "happen." Which is total guff as we all know. In the real world, things tend to happen for a reason and Newton's Third Law very much applies. In the real world, we have a process of evidence and observation. What's the alternative? God? No thanks. I've seen The Passion of the Christ and it wasn't pretty. In fact, it was the exact opposite of pretty. And by "the exact opposite of pretty" what I actually mean is "really fucking disgusting."
Interestingly, earlier in the very same classroom scene Wahlberg asks his students a very important question and that question is, "you're not interested in what happened to the bees?" And as everybody knows, the correct answer to this question is always, "frankly, Marky Mark, I lost interest in anything this film had to say approximately 20 seconds into the opening credits."
M. Night Shyamalan will return with The Last Airbender. It's about a kid who actually BENDS the air! Incredible. Oh, and by the way, Bruce Willis? TOTALLY a ghost.