Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Gaia Preserve Us, It's Still Happening!

Thanks to the miraculous nature of the internet, with its digital doohickeys and quantum doodads that I have no way of understanding due to being about 89 years old, a copy of the original draft of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (at that time called The Green Effect) has fallen into my hands. I was looking for clarification on a line of dialogue from the film that I have been making fun of, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered, having heard that they were very similar and therefore there would be very little point in reading something that has already appalled and amused me earlier this week. However, I was in for a shock. The original script, and original vision of Shyamalan's, is simultaneously even more silly and yet more coherent from a storytelling standpoint, and therefore a far more satisfying project. However, instead of cheering me up, knowing that my suspicions that there was a potentially interesting approach to the story were well-founded, I'm actually angry. We were sold a lemon from a guy who had promised us a sleek supercar, and yet actually had that supercar lying around spare and ready to give us but figured we would prefer the lemon instead. No, Mr. Shyamalan, I wanted the supercar! You can keep your citrus fruits, thank you very much. Anyway, here is a description of the supercar, and why it is better than the lemon. (I'll stop with that stretched metaphor now.)

-------------More spoilers right here-----------------

In my previous post I railed against a lot of things, such as the weird negativity of some of the characters, the cutesy character quirks, the unsatisfying ending, etc. etc. I'm not kidding when I say the film just seems to stop, with the Happening coming to an end at a specific time, just as Elliot (Wahlberg) and Alma (Deschanel) walk out into a field with an innocent young girl just so they can get a hug. Such nonsense. In the sense that Shyamalan seems to be mimicking Spielberg's War of the Worlds, with global events being shown through the eyes of a bystander who gets lucky (though Tom Cruise's character still gets to be a hero at the end, one of the many things I don't like about the final act of that film), I get that ending, but it still feels like a cop-out.

Now I find that for some inexplicable reason, Shyamalan has ditched the original ending, which might have made audiences laugh, but would have at least been coherent. In The Green Effect, Elliot's ruminations on the mood ring that connects him and his wife are absent for the majority of the film, though he throws it out at the end, while talking to her through the slavepipe (I don't know what else to call it). Again they are hiding from the Gaia-toxins, but in this version of the film, in addition to the plants being triggered at first by huge groups of humans and then by smaller and smaller groups as the film progresses, it now gets triggered by other things. At one point it seems that Gaia might be angry at someone for using an electric saw, though it's unclear what Shyamalan is getting at; a shame as otherwise it's a very well-written piece of work.

Trapped in separate houses, Elliot re-woos his wife, who has been trying to divorce him throughout the film (because he feels too much and seems to be reckless whereas she is panicky and unable to open herself up), and upon mentioning the mood ring and how he can't remember the colour of love, he realises that the last trigger for the toxins is individual moods. The crazy lady - who is not as batshit in this version, sadly, though she does have a cool-sounding Room of Crazy filled with Revelations-style nonsense - has just been affected and is wandering around stabbing herself with a crucifix (seriously), and Elliot realises she was targeted as she is filled with negative energy, whereas he is filled with love, and would therefore not be targeted by the plants. He gambles on this by walking out, and Alma, now convinced by his display, walks out as well, and is not killed either. There is a suspenseful moment where Elliot seems to walk backwards, but he is just thinking, apparently, which makes me think the whole walking backwards thing is just there to make this moment work as a shock event. Unfortunately, any horror created by this moment would be utterly destroyed by the big reveal moments later, as he realises what the mood ring colour of love is; green! Gaia is love! ::hugs tree::

Okay, so that sounds increeeeedibly goofy, but if that had been included in the final film, it would explain the inclusion of a lot of weird stuff that makes no sense. The random hostility of some of the characters, Alma's isolation, Elliot's optimism, the insertion of a really horrible woman at the end, that bloody mood ring; it's all there to justify the final scene, with Elliot and Alma becoming reconciled, and that reconciliation being the thing that saves their lives. While I can imagine audiences all over the world throwing their hands up and screaming, "You've got to be kidding!", at least it's an ending. The one that got filmed is utterly unsatisfying. We get to see Alma and Elliot reconciled, but we get no idea why. Because they got lucky and she thinks they have a second chance? It just isn't convincing. The original ending, for all of its outrageous wishy-washy New Age sentiment, at least makes sense thematically. It was a huge mistake taking it out. Though really, all you need is love? That shit only passes muster in Ghostbusters II, and that's only because the Statue of Liberty walks around after being filled with Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis' lovegoop (if you'll forgive the confusing visual that conjures up). Otherwise, having your heroes prevail because Gaia likes the colour of their auras and is a bit sentimental about wuv (despite killing nearly six billion people) is pretty hard to take.

To make things worse, there are other changes that ruin the film, and suggest that despite Shyamalan's insistence on final cut, his vision was altered due to pressure from the studio. As the final budget was something like $60m, I get the sense that he had to take a big cut from what he originally wanted to spend, which would account for the localised nature of the Happening. In the original script, it happens globally, at the same time, which is far scarier. As some of the lines hinting at this are left in the film, it makes me wonder if those awful TV inserts of newscasters ineptly discussing the Happening were done later, as they are not well made and contradict some of the dialogue about the march of events (especially the train driver saying he can't contact anyone).

That also makes the finale more effective. In The Green Effect Elliot is seemingly a history teacher (or anthropology teacher; I was unsure) instead of a science teacher, but has read a paper on plants responding to the threat of nearby ant populations by releasing ant-killing toxins, which seems to be the inspiration for the whole movie. The plants stopped once the ants population had shrunk to .00006% of its original size, which suggests that the shots at the end of The Green Effect, of shiny happy people around the world venturing out into a now toxin-free environment, means that Gaia feels it is no longer threatened by humans. I guess that means there's only about a million people left on the planet. That makes a sobering kind of sense, not the vague ending with the first Happening being a warning that humans happily ignore, prior to Paris getting targeted, which leads to all sorts of confused guesses about the messgae of the movie. Perhaps Gaia thought Europeans would be more receptive to large-scale death; a comment on America being more steadfast in the face of threats, as opposed to France being more likely to surrender, according to silly insulting beliefs? I hope not. Stay classy, Shyamalan.

The Green Effect is also much more straightforward than the filmed script. No hotdogs, no "Use science, douchebag!" or whatever the line was, no calculus calculus calculus. I'm on the fence about whether that's a good thing or not. I've got nothing against quirk, but this stuff, when delivered in the super-serious Shyamalan style, just seems risible. The only real character quirks featured in the original script make the main couple more likeable, such as Elliot's insistence on carrying a guitar everywhere so he can chase his dream of becoming a musician, even though Alma thinks he's being silly (Shyamalan makes sure to paint him as a pretty bad songwriter, a touch I respected). In The Green Effect, motivations that were mysterious now make sense, such as Julian's (Leguizamo's) bitchy comments to Alma, and if it had been filmed like that, it might still have been utterly goofy, but it would have been consistent. I just cannot imagine why the finished version had to be made the way it did, removing motivation and logic and replacing it with whimsy, obfuscation, exposition, and happenstance.

I guess Shyamalan was trying to make a movie that had a mystery to it, that didn't hew so closely to potentially nuance-free McKee-style story mechanics, but what he created wasn't a 2001-style curio that inspires reappraisal and alternate interpretations. It's still pretty straightforward, but just has bits missing, bits that would add to the power of the story, not detract from it. It's bad storytelling, and the only reasons for these odd decisions that I can think of are that Shyamalan was annoyed at executive suggestions aimed at him and his vision, and decided to arbitrarily excise relevant scenes and neuter the script in order to wreck his film as a fuck you, which really doesn't sound like him, or he doesn't have a good sense of what he is doing anymore, and got too close to the film to see the error of his ways. Either suggestion saddens me.

I'm not saying The Green Effect would definitely have been a better movie than The Happening, as we would probably still have had the bizarre performances of the leads, performances so odd that I wondered if they had been hypnotised the way Bernard Rose hypnotised Virginia Madsen on the set of Candyman (as shown on the excellent documentary included on the DVD). We would still have had the unscary shots of grass swaying; the script features funny directions such as "THE GRASS OBSERVES THE HOUSE", which you just can't film without it looking like you're just filming a house in a field. We would still have the occasional outbreak of clumsy exposition. We would still have had the perplexing inability to generate suspense from a man who once seemed to be able to do it without effort. We would still have the awkward hypothesising of Elliot, which is awfully accurate considering he doesn't really have any way to evaluate his suspicions. We would still have the walking backwards, which looks dopey. We would probably not have any gore. The original script is much harsher than the finished film, with more death, and more cinematic and brutal death at that (people packing their mouths and noses with dirt, or crashing their cars on a busy expressway, for example). The original vision for the movie was obviously one of a really gruelling emotional experience, one that would really hammer home the crisis facing humanity, thus strengthening Shyamalan's message, but for some inexplicable reason he backed away from that. Studio interference? Or loss of nerve? Will we ever know?

Even after pondering it today I'm still not sure if reading the original script makes me feel better or worse about Shyamalan. I kinda liked it, and the movie that played out in my head could have been good, though with an ending that would have polarised the audience in much the same way as the end of Signs. I also don't know if I would rather have had the possibly merely average and forgettable Green Effect, or the accidentally entertaining failure that was The Happening. I'd like to think I can get more pleasure from an average movie than a ridiculous disaster, but then I think about calculus, and about hotdogs, and about Betty Buckley losing her shit right into the camera, and I think, you know, pleasure is pleasure. I'm glad The Happening exists, and I'm glad that I've seen it.

And anyway, it's not like it's the worst film of the year. Cassandra's Dream wins that particular award. Compared to that, The Happening is just fine. What's more worrying is that Shyamalan had something promising in his hands, and squandered it. Will there ever be a moment where he takes stock of himself, listens to the advice of those around him, and sees that perhaps he can profit from the experience of others? I truly hope so, and look forward to a great Shyamalan movie further down the line or something even more bonkers and misjudged, just to be a dick.

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