THE HAPPENING (2008)

Why you eyeing my lemon drink? I almost wish we could leave it at that. Grim as its procession of R-rated suicides is, people love to talk about how The Happening is unintentionally funny. Shyamalan was always somewhat corny but this is campy in a way that’s downright nebulous.

It’s not always clear whether the movie means to be taken seriously. Maybe it does sometimes, and that’s the problem. If we can run with the idea that Shyamalan is a filmmaker with multiple personality disorder — like James McAvoy’s character in Split — then The Happening is a film where he appears to have been torn between clashing impulses. It’s essentially a 90-minute struggle between his sensibilities as a serious dramatist and his aspirations as a tongue-in-cheek parodist.

This struggle keeps the viewer off-balance to where you never are sure how intentional the biting hilarity of Mark Wahlberg’s performance as a science teacher is. Was Wahlberg in on the joke, or was Shyamalan coaxing some of the old Dirk Diggler out of him, putting him in embarrassing poses like a borrowed Ken doll, then snickering to himself? The movie certainly has its awesomely bad moments (like the infamous scene where Wahlberg reasons with a plant), but the real question is whether the sum total of those moments adds up to an awesomely bad movie, or just a hollow endeavor punctuated by a few memorable memes.

For his part, Wahlberg later called it a “bad movie,” period. YouTube has immortalized the clip where his character dons a pleading voice with the suspicious old woman who has taken him on as a houseguest:

“I hear you whispering. Planning on stealing something?”

“What? No, ma’am, we’re not …”

“Plan on murdering me in my sleep?”

“What?! No …”

Just give him a second to think. You like hot dogs, don’t you? How about chirpy non-sequiturs? Hear the leaves rustle; fear the wind. The wind carries neurotoxins released by plants, which have decided to wipe us out since we pose too much of a threat to the planet.

In interviews, Shyamalan has made it apparent that he takes ownership of his movies—even The Last Airbender, which represents his ultimate career nadir in terms of reviews. As we’ve seen, however, when it comes to fielding raw criticism, it’s as if there’s a cloud of denial hovering over his head that keeps him from confronting certain incontrovertible flaws in his output. That’s what made it interesting to read his recent interview with Vulture, where he talked about how people missed the element of “farce humor” in The Happening because he was “inconsistent” about delivering it.

That’s a rare moment of honest self-appraisal coming from a proud filmmaker. It hits the nail right on the head about why The Happening failed. If Shyamalan had made the movie as a straight-up comedy, maybe we’d all agree that it’s a B-movie classic. As it is, the movie is something of a tonal catastrophe: not funny enough by half, and certainly not scary. There’s also a mean-spirited nihilism to it that seems at cross-purposes with the message of Signs. It takes a Faces of Death approach to humor, showing us a suicide by lion, a suicide by lawnmower, and so forth. Yet if nothing else, the mass-suicide concept at least looked halfway interesting in trailers. That’s more than can be said for The Last Airbender or After Earth.

THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010)

To hear Shyamalan tell it, The Last Airbender was a movie made for 9-year-olds. It’s always a bit suspect when filmmakers fall back on the defense that a movie was made for the fans or made for kids and that’s why no one seems to like it. George Lucas said the same thing about the Star Wars prequels and hey, they had a human riding around on the back of a CG salamander, too—much like the one scrabbling up a castle wall in The Last Airbender.

There’s been a lot of irrational hyperbole leveled against The Last Airbender. In the court of public opinion, it’s been prosecuted for a long list of cinematic crimes, including racebending (instead of just airbending), butchering a beloved cartoon series, and digging a deeper hole for Shyamalan in his once-promising career. I had zero interest in the movie and never thought I would subject myself to it, but for this article, I went back and watched it, purely out of scientific interest.

I had braced myself for an atrocity, something howlingly bad, but the truth is, The Last Airbender is less remarkable than that. Sure, it feels like it’s missing connective scenes, and the child actors are a long way from Haley Joel Osment. Iranian-American actor Shaun Toub (Iron Man, Crash) plays the uncle of a banished fire-prince, and with the exception of him, you’ll never really believe a word that is coming out of anyone’s mouth.

It doesn’t help that the actors are saddled with lines of dialogue like, “I have to talk to the dragon spirit,” and, “Bring me all your elderly!” (The latter line, uttered by Dev Patel, can perhaps be read as Shyamalan’s subconscious leaking his fear of old people before The Visit.)

However, as someone with no stake in the cartoon series, The Last Airbender just struck me as rather inert and unconvincing. If you watched the movie in a vacuum, with no prior knowledge of his involvement, you might never guess it was an M. Night Shyamalan film. There’s nothing outwardly stylistic about it that would distinguish it from any other failed franchise-starter in the fantasy genre. I watched it at a distant remove and when it was all over, I felt like maybe that was how it was made, too.

This is Shyamalan at his most secretarial, devoid of his usual personality because it was now a poison brand. He couldn’t be himself and expect audiences to love him for it anymore.

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