M. Night Shyamalan’s problem is that he thinks he has profound ideas. In reality, he’s closer to Deep Thoughts. Shyamalan’s second-best film, Signs, outlined his thoughts on God: Former priest Mel Gibson tells us, in a very gravitas-y way, “You have to ask yourself what kind of person are you. Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”
The problem isn’t that Shyamalan is a believer; it’s that this is the extent of his beliefs. His films all involved people of have lost faith and then something happens, and they get it back. If you want to be rude about it, you could say that Shyamalan’s infamous plot twists are meant to be miracles in themselves, that show us, the audience the power of faith—look back at my movie, Shyamalan wants us to ask, there are no coincidences. I planned it this way all along
And that’s pretty much it. Shyamalan’s Believe It Or Not theology has no real depth; he simply believes that non-believers are cynics that God will punish. In this way, M. Night Shyamalan’s religious ideas run as deep as George W. Bush’s: They have no theological content. This is why Shyamalan is so concerned with “coincidences” in his movies; all he wants to do is talk about the existence of the Almighty, not what He wants from us. Bush and Shyamalan’s spiritual journeys rarely get past the Yes, No, Maybe box-checking phase.
Shyamalan does seems to have it out for science; his belief is a kind of non-aggressive intelligent design.
In Signs and The Village, science is treated not as if it’s wrong, but that it’s going to change whenever God shows back up to once and for all convince those non-believers. That brings us to The Happening, which sounds like a satire of a Shyamalan film.
The first twenty minutes or so, you think this might be the Shyamalan redemption film we’ve been waiting for. People just stop and kill themselves; there’s one particularly harrowing scene in which construction workers throw themselves off the girders at us on the ground, as if we were standing under the Twin Towers as trapped office workers hurled themselves out windows. Our perspective is from the evacuation of Philadelphia as the “happening” spreads from Central Park. Shyamalan creates a creepy pre-panic bustle as urban dwellers stuff their suitcases and pack onto trains headed towards relatives’ farmhouses in out-state. Shyamalan’s camera is perhaps a bit too steady for such a nervous time, but he captures the claustrophobia of urban bottlenecks in a semi-organized rush to leave.
After we get out of the city, however, Shyamalan is forced to explain what’s going on, and more troublesome, why it’s happening. These scenes forcefully demonstrate why Shyamalan simply must stop writing his own scripts: His ear is as tin as a cymbal. “Hotdogs get a bad wrap. They have a good shape, and they’re full of protein.” The nervous army private is named “Buster,” and he’s almost as credible as this namesake fellow soldier. The group runs “to stay ahead of the wind.” And, of course, “It’s an act of nature—we’ll never understand it.” Dude, because it’s an act of nature, that’s precisely why we can understand it!
He seems to have struck gold in casting Zooey Dechanel as the flaky wife, but he doesn’t develop the tension in her and Mark Wahlberg’s relationship at all. The Sixth Sense worked, despite it’s impossible conceit, because the scenes with Bruce Willis are intimate and personal. Now that Shyamalan thinks he’s a philosopher, he is simply incapable of this kind of writing—he has Important Things to Say About Life and the Universe! So, he spends most of his time on nonsense, like his heavy-handed characterization of the protagonists. Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher; his best friend John Leguizamo is a math teacher. Why these jobs? Because we cannot possibly understand the world with science and numbers alone! We have to…you guessed it, BELIEVE!
In fact, Shyamalan puts the intelligent design argument in the mouth of his unusually attractive and well-built science teacher: When discussing the recent honeybee decline, Wahlberg informs his students, “Science will come up with an answer to put in the books, but in the end, it’s only a theory. A scientist must have a proper awe for forces beyond our understanding.” Not only does Shyamalan misplay the “It’s Just a Theory!” card, but he completely disregards the whole scientific method: What real science teacher would ever tell his students that scientists just make stuff up for the books, then throw up their hands and say, “Don’t worry about an explanation! This stuff is beyond our understanding!” That’s the exact opposite of what scientists, religious or not, do.
Worse, Leguizamo calculates the odds that The Happening will reach Philadelphia. He doesn’t explain how he comes up with 62%, but he does close his eyes and rub his forehead vigorously, which means he’s calculating. And if there’s anything we know about Shyamalan, it’s that you can’t figure everything out just by crunching the numbers. I’ll leave it to you to guess his fate.
Worse yet is Shyamalan’s metaphor for science. Wahlberg wears a mood ring, which is “scientifically proven” to gauge your emotions. He’s not kidding—he explains how the ring works to some kids, as if he’s demonstrating Newton’s Second Law. This, friends, is M. Night Shymalan’s conception of science: It’s merely a mood ring that can tell you how you feel, but not why you feel that way. In other words, science is only useful when figuring out how God is using science to communicate with us—you know, when God’s mood ring is black.
As the film backs itself into a corner, we enter Signs “If the aliens can be killed by water, why did they land on Earth” territory. There’s some nonsense about “staying in groups,” but we can never really figure out how big your group can be before you catch the Happening. A lady shows her daughter getting mauled by a tiger over an iPhone, and holds it out for everybody to see. You get the drift. Still, I stand by the idea that Shyamalan would be fine if he would just stop writing his own scripts. The end scene is an ingeniously staged moment where the two talk through a communications device from the Underground Railroad, and he turns a gentle breeze into a ominous threat. Night, please, let somebody else build the car and you just worry about driving it.