Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Ecosystem

The other night I inadvertently got drawn into watching a movie on SyFy, catching snatches of it between sets of arm curls and shoulder presses.  The opening scene showed people strolling in Central Park, New York as an ominous breeze began stirring the trees and shrubbery.  Many of the pedestrians froze, became inarticulate and clumsy, and then commenced killing themselves with whatever means was available.  This looked promising, a sort of inverted Zombification, lacking the usual appalling table manners, but every bit as disturbing as crowds of people were depicted committing suicide en masse.

This was M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 film The Happening—he wrote, produced and directed it—an interesting, though flawed effort that was generally panned.  One critic described it as resembling Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)—but without the birds.  For his part, Shyamalan described his intentions as “We’re making an excellent B movie, that’s our goal.”  The film easily achieves this modest objective.  The Happening should not be confused with the 1967 counter-cultural movie of the same name, although neurotoxins of one kind or another are implicated in both films.

In Shyamalan’s The Happening, people in various cities of the northeast begin unaccountably killing themselves in large numbers.  As citizens evacuate the larger cities, the mysterious plague follows them into the countryside.  The film focuses on high school science teacher Elliot Moore, (played by Mark Wahlberg) as he tries to keep his family together and shepherd a small group of survivors away from the affected areas.

Various theories explaining the origin of the strange malady are offered:  it is some sort of bioterrorist attack, it has something to do with emissions from nuclear power plants, it is an epidemic of some unknown pathogen.  The Happening uses the very familiar and reliable device of occasional radio and television broadcasts to fill in details about the extent of the plague; various “talking heads” opine on screen about the nature of the disaster. 

It seems that whenever this device is used to fill in the back story, there is never ever a commercial break.  At any time, beleaguered characters can snap on the TV or radio and get instant updates and answers to their questions.  (Perhaps sometime a horror movie could effectively build suspense by interposing endless inane advertisements to interrupt or forestall the bad news:  “Something terrible is happening in Central Park at this moment—and we’ll get back to this following the commercial break.”  Certainly this is done for actual disasters all the time, and so would bring a degree of realism.  But it may be that this trope is fading; who needs to consult TV or radio for official pronouncements anymore?)

Wahlberg’s character, who occasionally intones the steps of the scientific method as if it were a secular prayer, gradually pieces together the terrifying truth.  Plant life—trees, grasses, shrubs, houseplants and so forth—are emitting a specialized neurotoxin into the air which drives human beings to kill themselves.  The presence of the neurotoxin is announced by a helpful and convenient breeze that stirs the tops of trees and blades of grass as a prelude to mayhem and carnage.  The onset of symptoms is immediate: a visible neurological impairment that includes slurred, incoherent, repetitive speech, awkward gait, and a sudden preoccupation with taking one’s life with whatever means are at hand.  It seems that botany and meteorology are in cahoots to wipe out the human race, or at least seriously reduce its numbers.

(This was a disappointment to me; I had hoped that the calamity was extraterrestrial in origin.  It is so typical of alien invaders to take over the minds of hapless humans—like communists, and lately, capitalists as well—and contrive to have them do harm to one another or themselves in the service of some larger conspiracy.)

The high school science teacher and his comrades are helpless in the face of an ecology that has turned against them.  They can only flee as their numbers dwindle and their zone of safety shrinks.  Initially the survivors believe that if they divide into smaller groups they will be less likely to irritate the local vegetation—the implication being that mankind should revert to its prehistoric lifestyle as small bands of foraging wanderers.  But this hypothesis soon proves to be false.  One message of the film is that Nature is unpredictable and ultimately incomprehensible.  A hundred years ago, the message might have been much more sectarian:  a vengeful God is unpredictable and ultimately incomprehensible. 

Given all the inexplicable, apocalyptic crowd scenes of mass suicide, it is striking that there is no invocation of religious notions of the end of the world, except for a few “oh my Gods”, “Mother of Gods”, and an occasional “Mon Dieu”, (when the plague makes an appearance on the streets of Paris near the end of the film).  In most disaster movies up until the late 1960s and early 1970s there was usually a cameo of someone calling on the terrified crowds to repent for the end was near.   In a work of literature and film it is often interesting to note what is not present, what is unexpectedly missing.

There is however an effectively creepy scene near the end of the film, when Wahlberg’s character, his wife and a young girl find shelter in an old madwoman’s remote cottage.  Crucifixes adorn nearly every room, and the woman seems to be channeling an angry, deranged Mother Nature.

In the end, the mysterious plague suddenly disappears, and a chastened, reduced population returns to its homes.  A scientist on the television reassures the city’s survivors that they are safe for the moment, but that the event could happen again—the subtext being “unless we repent and change our ways.”  We are encouraged to see The Happening as a warning.  To paraphrase Jonathon Edwards in this context:  “We are sinners in the hands of an angry Ecosystem.”

As a fan of pulp science fiction, I was struck by the similarities of this film with certain conventions of the genre worked out nearly a century ago.  There is just a smidgen of science on which to base the premise of the story:  plants do indeed appear to evolve toxins as a kind of armament to deter animals that might eat them, or to allow them to compete more effectively against other plant species.  There also seems to be a kind of communication between different plant species that live close together in the wild, suggesting a kind of cooperation or accommodation.  But it is highly unlikely that trees and grasses in a city park would suddenly conspire to exterminate urban dwellers out to enjoy a bit of nature, much less to have the wind at their command.

As in early pulp science fiction and horror, one sees respect for science as an authority—hence the need for “talking heads” in mass media, but also impatience.  A pseudo-scientific premise is introduced, but its unfolding soon devolves into a poetic and nightmarish meditation on some moral or philosophical point.  The Happening relies on the appearance of a television scientist as well as a high school science teacher to provide credibility, mainly out of habit.  But in the end, no one will care about neurotoxins or plant evolution.  The Happening is a vision of the End Times.  The question is not how the potent neurotoxins work, but as Ezekiel might ask, “How then can we live?”  

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