What Happened, Night?

Mark Wahlberg's science teacher contends with his own confusion while gratuitously alluding to Einstein.
Zade Rosenthal. c 2008 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Last night I saw The Happening, which is hands down the worst film since Battlefield Earth. I savor big-budget, mindless popcorn romps (Independence Day, yay!) but The Happening was a nasty lump of awful dialogue, overacting/nonacting, and ludicrous pseudoscience. I'm not sure how this film even got released. Several people fled the theatre as it became painfully clear just how bad it was. Those of us who stayed were gripped either by morbid curiosity or, possibly, by neurotoxins driving us to self-harm.

Based on the wacky-yet-cliche characters and bizarre visual set pieces (two knitting grandmas wearing gas masks), I'd guess M. Night Shyalaman was trying to do something potentially intriguing: hybridize the quirky Americana genre ("Northern Exposure," Forrest Gump) with the classic disaster film. Unfortunately, he didn't succeed. Once the film solemnly announced that lethal airborne botanical "cotransporters" (!) were making our neurotransmitters shut down, which, logically, resulted in immediate organismal apoptosis, I had to accept that Shyamalan wasn't interested in even a veneer of realism.

In this interview with Scientific American, he makes a stab at credibility:

But there's so much unexplained stuff. I don't quite understand the scientific explanation of the placebo effect. What is the core of that? The fact that the placebo effect exists is a fact, but what is it? We have no idea. I love that. I even love that with regard to the home-court advantage in sports. What is that? It's connected to a belief system. Both things, the placebo and the home-court effect, are a belief system that we can turn thought into actual biological function. In and of itself, that's something that science says is not possible. But you can document it.

Er, okay. Last I checked, the reason we had placebos in trials is because we all agree the placebo effect is very much possible - unavoidable, actually. Shyamalan seems to think that if science has not yet completely explained something, it's obvious that science is inadequate to ever do so. Therefore, we should abandon it. I begin to see why people thought this film was an apology for ID!

Laelaps already had a field day with Shyamalan's pseudoscientific garble, so I won't venture into the weeds. But I just wish Shyamalan hadn't gone there either. I liked The Sixth Sense and loved Unbreakable. I even enjoyed The Village. I'm more than willing to suspend my disbelief and take a flight of fancy, as long as a film doesn't rub my face in inaccuracies and aggressive ignorance. (I barely blinked an eye when Jeff Goldblum saved the planet by infecting the alien fleet with a computer virus he cooked up on his Mac laptop.) A film doesn't have to be scientifically plausible to be good entertainment - just leave science out of the equation! To paraphrase my mother, if you don't have anything accurate to say, don't say anything at all.

But Shyalaman couldn't do that, because his entire thesis is that science is inadequate. And by gum, if real science wasn't inadequate enough for him, he'd glue together some craptastic "science" that would prove his point! At the end of the Scientific American interview, he promises to return to this theme:

the science is such a fun kickoff point for larger issues. It does have that based-on-a-true-story feeling to it. You can really take it one more step and just take it to a nightmare situation and then wake everybody up. I definitely have a couple things noodling around in my head now.

To which I think we all reply, "Nooooooooooooooooooooo!"

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That's hilarious! I always use Battlefield Earth as a "worst movie ever" reference. That, along with Speed 2: Cruise Control, are perhaps the worst movies of our generation. Even the Leprechaun series had some redeaming qualities (i.e., a leprechaun-devil hybrid who travels to space and learns to rap).

Thanks for the link! I've never been a huge fan of M. Night's stuff, but his older stuff was better. I won't mention Lady in the Water, oops...

Unless it's a biopic I don't have a problem with Hollywood fiddling around with science/science fiction. If I am going to a movie to be entertained and see an adventure story I'm not going to storm out of the theater if things aren't just right. Take Jurassic Park. There's so much wrong with that movie that I don't know where to start but it's just fun to watch; I love it. Even if the science is bunk it at least brought filmmakers and paleontologists together to "bring dinosaurs back to life" via sfx for the film and that's good enough for me.

The film itself sounds like it takes it's cues from The Birds and other such films, not necessarily a bad thing, but the nonsense that M. Night spewed while talking about the film was what frustrated me most. He accepted science to give him a story but throws out anything else he doesn't like because he can't be bothered to look into it, it seems. All too often people throw up their hands and say "I'm not a scientist!" and don't look into things further because it's more convenient to be able to reject uncomfortable things about nature if you don't know much about them.

John - that's because "Battlefield Earth" IS the worst movie ever. It's so bad, it's not even very funny. I don't think even MST3K could salvage it.

Brian - I think "The Birds" hits the right note. There's no need to know why things are happening in order for them to be terrifying. Take "Cloverfield" (another not-so-great film) as an example: it was WAY scarier than "The Happening," because you weren't sure what was going on and no one even tried to explain it scientifically until well into the film. The faux news anchors in "The Happening" began throwing around words like "evolution" and "neurotransmitters" right off the bat, and that's when the film was sunk for me. There was no distinction between the scientific expertise of experts on CNN, Mark Walberg's high school science teacher, and the loony New Age nurseryman who talks to his plants and obsesses over hot dogs. To Shyalaman, apparently, it's all "science", and it's all silly.

Jessica; I hear you. I did enjoy Cloverfield to an extent, but it's not the kind of movie I would watch over and over again.

A sure cure for bad movies; Rifftrax. And they're just about to release one for the 6th Sense too. You'll love it if you liked MST3k (because it's the same guys! They've done one for Battlefield Earth, even).

If only movie-makers could learn where to include science. Some get away with it by briefly alluding to science and quickly moving on. Far too many, however, fall into the trap of using poorly thought out science as a 'Ta-Da!' moment. I think that the Matrix is a prime example of that. The 'Human as energy generator' bit is asinine but wouldn't have bothered me as a passing aside. Instead they went to great trouble to make it the focal point.
It's kind of like painting hands. If you're unclear about the anatomy, it's wise to just keep them out of the way. If you want to make them the focus, you better have it down. Imagine if Michelangelo had tried to fudge the hands on the Adam/God touch.
Thanks for the warning. I'll spend my money on something useful-- like booze.

Michael - nice point about the hands. I wish I was like a Renaissance master with a studio full of apprentices who could do hands for me - I hate them. But you're right that they, like science, need to be done convincingly or not at all.

Ridger - I managed to escape Lady in the Water. I'm sure if I'd seen it, I'd never have gone near The Happening. It sounds awful.

That's what's so infuriating! Hollywood moviemakers DO have a studio full of apprentices to get things done. If they actually wanted to come up with sturdy science fiction they'd have no problem doing it. Seriously, how many science kids would jump at the opportunity to be a consultant on a movie? I'm willing to wager the answer is 'most of them.' I sure would.

"organismal apoptosis"
That's either a funny way of saying "suicide" or you're suggesting that every cell in the body suddenly dies. Whatever. I agree, the self-preservation mechanism failing wouldn't necessarily drive people to commit suicide; they just wouldn't duck or jump to avoid some bodily threat. But it might be an underhanded comment on the depression epidemic in the U.S., that many people think about suicide but their self-preservation mechanisms, as well as any number of other reasons (family, faith, etc.) prevent attempts.

As for the accusations of poor science, I think this movie hardly relies on pseudoscience. In many ways, it acknowledges the limitations of science. Many great horror films are ones in which there is no good reason for the threat (e.g. "The Birds," "Cloverfield," "The Mist"). The thing we fear is unobservable or unable to be understood--that's what makes it scary. For somebody used to being able to explain things rationally, such as Elliot (Wahlberg), such great human loss coupled with an invisible threat is bewildering, and he struggles to explain it with science. I think ultimately he remains a skeptic. I also disagree that "There was no distinction between the scientific expertise of experts on CNN, Mark Walberg's high school science teacher, and the loony New Age nurseryman who talks to his plants and obsesses over hot dogs." Obviously, the nurseryman was meant to be laughable and unscientific. The only thing Elliot takes seriously is his contention that it's the plants. "How" is what science can answer.

Now, I liked the movie, although in ranking Shyamalan's movies (most of which I love for their simplicity and great acting and direction), I'd put this at the bottom.

Rachel - I used apoptosis as a metaphor for what's, ahem, happening because, like apoptosis, the deaths in the film are unemotional and goal-oriented. Suicide is usually an act in extremis, by someone who is driven to it by violent emotions. There are no violent emotions in "The Happening"'s victims.

Such emotions would have made the science much more plausible (a plant toxin that, like many other plant toxins, induces hallucinations and terror, would have had a logical neurobiological mechanism). From the horror film director's perspective, this zombie-like flat affect could potentially be creepier than hysteria - because it is so unnatural - but only if done right! I think it was done badly, partly because in the theatre, I heard people laughing during the suicides. (the laughter was creepier than the film). It's another case where Shyalaman had a potentially good idea, but didn't execute.

As for the scientific credibility of the characters, I found all the "scientists" in this film loony - loony in different ways, to be sure, but all babbling unscientific gobbledygook. A convincing indictment of science's limitations would have to show intelligent scientists doing a credible, top-notch job of trying to understand reality, and then still falling short. "Contact" may be the best example I can think of for a film that comes close, showing a brilliant scientist grappling with a crisis of faith. "Lost" does a phenomenal job of portraying intelligent, rational "men of science" who are poorly equipped to deal with supernatural events. "The Happening" was, I'm sorry to say, nowhere close to the mark.