The Best Negative Movie Review of 2008

We are true connoisseurs of the negative movie review.

This genre is perhaps best exemplified by Roger Ebert’s classic collection I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, with a title inspired by his famous takedown of Rob Reiner’s abominable “North“:

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

Ebert has softened in his old age and doesn’t blast crappy filmmakers the way he used to, so this year we’re turning to The New Republic’s Christopher Orr and his cruel dissection of M. Night Shymalan’s forgettable film, “The Happening.”

It’s a list of 18 items of idiocy in the film, but we’ve distilled it down to a handful of paragraphs that truly expose the latest crappy M. Night venture. God, we hate that guy.

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, The Happening, is not merely bad. It is an astonishment, so idiotic in conception and inept in execution that, after seeing it, one almost wonders whether it was real or imagined. It’s the kind of movie you want to laugh about with friends, swapping favorite moments of inanity: “Do you remember the part when Mark Wahlberg … ?” “God, yes. And what about that scene where the wind … ?”

The problem, of course, is that to have such a conversation, you’d normally have to see the movie, which I believe is an unreasonably high price to pay just to make fun of it. So rather than write a conventional review explaining why you should or shouldn’t see The Happening (trust me, you shouldn’t), I’m offering an alternative: A dozen and a half of the most mind-bendingly ridiculous elements of the film, which will enable you to marvel at its anti-genius without sacrificing (and I don’t use that term lightly) 90 minutes of your life. As this is intended to be an alternative to seeing the actual film it is, of course, overflowing with spoilers…

The single most absurd element of The Happening, the wellspring from which all other absurdities flow, is its conceit: Across the Northeastern United States, people are succumbing to a toxic airborne agent that makes them commit suicide, often gruesomely. At first it hits major population centers, followed by smaller towns, and on down to groups of even just a handful of people. Initially, it’s assumed to be some kind of terrorist attack. But as we learn pretty early in the film, it’s not. It’s trees. Yes, the trees (and perhaps some bushes and grass, too, the movie’s never too clear on this point) have tired of humankind’s ecological despoilment and are emitting a complicated aerial neurotoxin that makes us kill ourselves en masse. I bet you wish you were the one who came up with this blockbuster idea.

[…]

Elliot, Alma, and Jess flee from Philadelphia to a series of smaller towns and ultimately the rural countryside. This makes sense in the movie’s nonsensical context–the nation’s trees are somehow “targeting” big cities first and then smaller and smaller populations. But it seems more than a little unhinged that our heroes’ response to the revelation that the trees are trying to kill them is to head into the forest.

happening
The trees are trying to kill us! No need to close up the car windows, however. The inconsistency of M. Night’s conceit shall protect us.

[…]

By this time, the group is made up of just Elliot, Alma, Jess, and two obnoxious teenagers who were introduced so offhandedly that I didn’t even catch their names. They’ve all realized that the trees are targeting smaller and smaller groups. At one point they even witnessed two tiny bands of people meet up, cross some population threshold and–wham–a gust of wind followed by mass suicide. So why don’t the Elliot trio and the anonymous teens split up to improve their chances of survival? Evidently it never occurs to them…

Either that, or the teens are along to provide Shyamalan fodder for another howlingly inept pseudo-tragedy. The apparently abandoned house (see #11) is not in fact abandoned, just closed up. (The inhabitants, unlike our protagonists, have had the sense to seal themselves indoors.) Elliot’s refugees beg for food, but the residents decline to give them any, leading the two teens to start banging on windows, kicking the door, and calling the inhabitants “pussies” (among other things) for what feels like an eternity. When the folks inside inevitably dispatch the boys with a shotgun, we’re meant to be shocked and appalled; I suspect most viewers, like me, will think, “Thank God that’s over.”

[…]

Elliot closes himself inside the main house and Alma and Jess hole up in a guest house that’s connected to it by a “speaking tube” (don’t even get me started), so they can hear one another clearly as they wait to see whether the tree-toxin will penetrate their respective sanctuaries. But hearing isn’t enough for Elliot, who vows to brave the deadly air so that he can be “with” Alma. One envisions a (still foolhardy) sprint from one house to the other with breath held. Instead, Elliot ambles slowly out into the sunlight and stops. Alma, too, leaves possible safety to walk out casually and meet him in the middle, leading little Jess along by the hand. I mean, honestly: Have a romantic joint suicide if you must, but do you really have to kill the 8-year-old girl in the bargain?

But, hey, good news! No one dies at all. In the five minutes since Betty came in through the bathroom (and living room and kitchen) windows, the trees have stopped emitting their evil inhalants, almost exactly 24 hours after they began. The air is suddenly fine and all threat has passed. Why? Because it was an “act of nature,” the in-film experts helpfully explain. Thanks for clearing that up.

One of the things that is so remarkable about The Happening is how closely it apes everything that was lame or unseemly about Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (the crazy hermits, the paranormal genocide as an excuse for family reconciliation), while including nothing that was good in it (the remarkable design and effects, the sharp action sequences, the aliens). It even ends, like WotW, with the family glowingly united in a sunny suburb. Elliot and Alma have adopted Jess, who shows no sign of distress at the fact that her parents brutally offed themselves a few months earlier. And if this happy ending weren’t happy enough, Alma learns she’s pregnant! Thank goodness so much joy could come out of the violent deaths of millions of people.

Wow, M. Night just gets worse and worse with each film. What a poser.

Well done, Mr. Orr. We’re hoping 2009 brings many more opportunities for embittered critics to savage truly poor films…

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About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

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