Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Kills Everybody in The Happening?

*** Spoilers ahoy. Stop reading now if you want M. Night Shyamalan's new movie The Happening to be a complete surprise. ***

M. Night Shyamalan has been talking with reporters about The Happening, which opens in theaters on Friday the 13th. It turns out the rash of human suicides - and mysterious bee deaths - are due to neurotoxins produced by plants and algae. He told Shock Till You Drop:
Shock: I know "Scientific American"* grilled you earlier at the press conference earlier (see below) and the bees were something out there, but did you look into all the possibilities of this movie's scenario coming true?
Shyamalan: Definitely, yeah, we did and we got all kinds of research on similar events that happened in the water, plankton releasing toxins and things like that, which just happened again, there were some neurotoxins released in a lake in Bali or Thailand or something like that. Then there was interesting articles about things rising. One of the things that I guess was in the back of my mind was that one in six emergency room cases for the United States is asthma-related. I'm going, "What? When I was a kid, the kid who had asthma was that freak kid three schools down who had asthma." Now, it's like every other kid has asthma. Everybody's like wheezing and there's a line outside the nurse's office for an inhaler. What's that about? We're becoming allergic to what? There's peanut-free tables in every school right now. When was that (done)? We're all becoming really sensitive to something in the air.
Phytoplankton - microscopic single-celled algae - can "bloom" causing the phenomenon commonly known as a red tide. The plankton produce potent neurotoxins that become concentrated in shellfish, making them poisonous to eat. Other algae, such as the dinoflagellate Pfiesteria piscicida, produce toxins that can cause memory loss, confusion, upper respiratory irritation and acute skin burning. I Googled a bit, but wasn't able to come up with any particular algal bloom at an Asian lake that Shyamalan might be talking about, though. There's no connection to asthma or peanut allergies. (Also, Shyamalan's perception of the prevalence of asthma is a bit skewed. While there was a significant increase in the percentage of kids with asthma between 1980 and 2005, that increase was from 3.6% to 8.9% - hardly a change from a few "freaks" to "every other kid".)
Shock: What do you find that science allows you to do that fantasy hasn't?
Shyamalan: When I came up with the idea, I said to the research people, "Give me every piece of information. I want to know 1 to 10 whether this idea is totally possible, probable or impossible, completely." When they came back with a stack of information about how the environment works and how plants work and how examples of anomalous things that have happened in the world. How a cotton plant can send out a signal to the other side of the field to tell them that this insect is coming and they send out poisons and they send out toxins and all these things happening in a smaller form, the exact kind of thing. It was really fun and then I talked to the University of Massachusetts and some other institutes about how the brain works, about toxins and how they affect each other. It was really fun to ground… [. . .]
Plant-to-plant communication is a relatively new area of study. It turns out that many plants that are pest-infested or damaged can send out a signal that stimulates neighboring plants to beef up their defenses. Discover Magazine ran a feature on "talking plants" in 2002:
[Marcel] Dicke and his colleagues have found that mere exposure to airborne emissions from mite-infested cotton and lima beans will prompt undamaged plants to release signals that summon an enemy of the infesting mite. Over the last 19 years, in various experiments, researchers say they've caught willow, poplar, alder, and birch trees listening to their own kind and barley seedlings listening to other barley seedlings. In each case, damaged plants, whether eaten by caterpillars, infected by fungus or powdery mildew, infested by spider mites, or even clipped mechanically, sent out chemicals that seemed to jump-start the defenses of undamaged plants nearby.
Presumably in The Happening plants have evolved to fight their biggest pest: humanity. That sounds like an interesting science fiction-horror premise. However, from what Shyamalan said in a recent press conference, the science is wrapped in New Agey spirituality.
The idea of plants having consciousness is kind of a non-western world view. Did you consider that as coming from your other influences. Could you guys talk about how your non-western experiences have influenced you? And could you talk about the spiritual side of the film?

Shyamalan: Definitely. It’s interesting because the Native American culture, that’s all it’s about. My middle name, Night, it’s an American Indian name. That is what I felt so attached to when I was a kid—from the American Indian culture—the relationship to nature, and worshipping the sky, the earth, the rock. That relationship felt correct then, as a kid, and it feels correct now, as an adult. It’s interesting how in all our religions, so little is said about how we should feel towards nature. It’s an interesting thing to kind of get the hierarchy back in line. We’re just one of many living creatures on the planet.
Apparently the movie ultimately turns away from science fiction, with a "spiritual message" and a conclusion that demonstrates that there are "limits of rational thought".

For more: check out the early reviews at Ain't It Cool News. The consensus seems to be disappointment.

ETA: In the less-than-glowing review in today's LA Times, reviewer Carina Chocano asked:
The mysterious airborne substance that's making people kill themselves is believed to be some kind of neurotoxin that blocks the self-preservation instinct in humans. But would simply removing the self-preservation instinct really cause people to instantly annihilate themselves? En masse? I'd have thought it would lead to slower, more indirect forms of self-destruction, like riding a bike without a helmet or drinking and driving or unsafe sex. This, sadly, is the question Shyamalan neglects to answer, which, in the wake of films like "28 Days Later," is a letdown.
Sounds like Shyamalan should stick to fantasy.

(via Abbie at ERV, who isn't at all pleased about the spirituality stuff)

Scientific American hasn't published anything about the movie yet.
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1 comment:

  1. Someone really decided to put on their thinking cap, great going! It’s fantastic to see people really writing about the important things.


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