David Thompson
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June 17, 2008

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JuliaM

Viewing the trailer, it sruck me as having a rather similar storyline to Stephen King's 'Cell' novel...

"That’s obviously why The Sixth Sense was widely acclaimed and enormously successful and yet The Happening was not."

Hollywood loves novelty. But familiarity breeds contempt.

Anna

Do Guardian writers jam in accusations of racism voluntarily or is it in their contract? :)

David

Julia,

I actually liked The Sixth Sense - even though it’s basically a riff on the 1970’s film Sole Survivor and at least one Twilight Zone episode – and I did enjoy Unbreakable. But everything I’ve seen of his since has been misjudged and pretty awful.

Anna,

Maybe it’s “understood” as something one ought to do, however ludicrously.

sk60

"Humanoid aliens descend on a blue planet whose surface is covered in water and whose atmosphere contains large amounts of water, only for those aliens to be revealed, abruptly and for no clear reason, as being laid low by… a glass of water."

But isnt that just like the germs in War of the Worlds?

JuliaM

"...the 1970’s film Sole Survivor..."

Ahhh, yes! William Shatner was in that, wasn't he (my memory isn't what it used to be)? I had it on tape somewhere - haven't seen it in ages.

Must go look it up on IMDB.

David

sk60,

I think we can just about forgive H.G. Wells for his narrative gaffe. Though, to us, a century later, it seems absurd that super-intelligent beings could master space travel and interplanetary warfare yet make no preparation whatsoever for earthly bacteria. That’s one of the reasons Spielberg’s remake starts off quite intense but ends up looking stupid. It’s stuck with Wells’ (now implausible) ending. I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for the aliens and their tripods, heat rays, etc. But then to have the bad guys felled by a runny nose? And the same goes for Shyamalan and his deadly glass of water. It’s just too silly and feels like we’ve been had.

AntiCitizenOne

I thought it was because the glass of water was filled with nasty nasty pollutants?

Still a shite film

David

Hm. Maybe it was meant to be pollutants. I forget, or tried to. Still, it leaves much the same problem. And those Instantly Deadly Drinking Water Impurities™ are a bit too Wizard of Oz for my taste. (“You stupid girl! I’m melting… Melting!” etc.)

Anna

Julia - 'Sole Survivor' - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6A_qNAQCGU

JuliaM

The whole thing..? Wow! Cheers :)

Horace Dunn

I thought that the whole point of Wells's bacteria (I speak of the film - and the 1980s LP record as I haven't read the book) destroying the alien invaders was a kind of moral warning against hubris - even the mightiest can be felled by a mere microbe. And that remains true to this day. It's irony. For that reason, I think it's rather a nice twist.

As for the funny name, surely M Night Shyamalan is blessed rather than hampered. I wonder if it is his real name? It's a fantastic name for someone who makes creepy films. I wonder if audiences stayed away from films starring Boris Karloff (real name William Pratt) because his name sounds a bit odd and foreign.

David

Horace,

“I thought that the whole point of Wells’s bacteria… destroying the alien invaders was a kind of moral warning against hubris…”

Yes, but the specifics just don’t work with a modern understanding of bacteriology. Even we puny humans take fairly rigorous precautions. The idea that a more advanced civilisation would be so careless now seems rather silly, which undermines the intended poignancy.

“As for the funny name, surely M Night Shyamalan is blessed rather than hampered.”

I agree, it’s hard to see how a (self-consciously) intriguing name could deter critics and filmgoers in great numbers. But apparently we’re supposed to imagine that it - and Shyamalan’s skin colour - are factors in his critical mauling. I have no idea whether there are cinemagoers who actually do base their viewing habits on the birth place or skin pigment of a given film director. Those seem to be niche criteria. I seriously doubt there are enough of such people to have much impact on box office receipts, even those of really bad films that are nothing in particular to do with race. But the fact the question even crops up, and crops up so pointedly, probably tells us quite a bit about the fixations of certain newspapers.

Paul

The Sixth Sense was a very good film. Even better - and even with the stupid ending - was Unbreakable which, for my money, was a unique and rather moving take on the superhero genre. Plus it featured a genuinely great performance by Bruce Willis. For that film alone I always give Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt.

Which is why I sat through crap like Signs, Lady in the Water and The Village (The Village being the best of those three). The Happening is just another in his ever-expanding list of failures. Terrible acting, massive plot holes and daft inconsistencies mixed in with a few fantastic scenes - the most notable of which was when they drove into Princeton and first saw the hanging bodies over the street (the bodies falling from the scaffolding at the start was also effective).

He would - were it around today and up to its best standards - make quite a decent writer and director of some nice half hour Twilight Zone episodes. Which, of course, would be something to be very proud of.

David

Paul,

Unbreakable is the film I most enjoyed. If you accept the premise, the internal logic has fewer holes than The Sixth Sense, though the ending isn’t quite what it could be. Still, the imagery is very effective and memorable. I suppose a lot of the appeal depends on whether you share Shyamalan’s affection for comic books.

Franklin

The New Republic ran a truck over it:

http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=75893f9a-3391-4ab5-88c8-cf7e74bcd835

David

“Given the amorphous nature of the threat--the villain, after all, is foliage--the movie needed its star to bring some energy, some empathy, some heroism, some something to the proceedings. Not happening.”

And I quite like the term “anti-genius”.

Horace Dunn

David

"Yes, but the specifics just don’t work with a modern understanding of bacteriology. Even we puny humans take fairly rigorous precautions. The idea that a more advanced civilisation would be so careless now seems rather silly, which undermines the intended poignancy."

Well perhaps, but in truth modern understanding of bacteriology tells us nothing about the likely effects of the common cold on Martians, let alone the inhabitants of more distant planets. Besides which, it could well be that the Martians (or whoever) had never encountered bacteria before. Perhaps disease is not something they have back home. Perhaps life developed in a different way on their planet.

But since story-telling is, to a large extent, something we do to throw light on the way we live our lives, it still seems to me a very valid plot element. There are examples of advanced civilisations sending out invasionary parties only to have them scuppered by unexpected environmental nasties - heat, cold, the altitude, some nasty bug that the local people seem immune to... The whole point of the WOTW plot device, surely, is that the advance civilisation, probably by dint of its being so advanced, has overlooked something trivial - or its scientific advances have not yet made it aware of that trivial thing - and therein lies its downfall.

You could argue about the wisdom of M Night S's using a related plot device in "Signs", but I still feel that you're wrong to see it as a narrative gaffe in WOTW.

David

Horace,

Well, I guess we’ll have to differ on this. At the time of the novel’s writing, around 1898, I’m sure the germs idea was a perfectly credible device to use, as well as a poetic one. But from today’s perspective it is, I maintain, too dated to take very seriously.

“In truth modern understanding of bacteriology tells us nothing about the likely effects of the common cold on Martians, let alone the inhabitants of more distant planets.”

My point is that we would now find it bizarre not to take basic precautions against the possible ill-effects of alien biospheres, and therefore we’d find it odd that other, much smarter beings wouldn’t do so too. Obviously, we couldn’t know the details of alien diseases, but we would, I think, be mindful of the fact they could exist. We, the audience, know about the contagion of various colonists and conquerors. We know about the Cane Toad saga and other transplanted species. Our own discoveries and everyday experience have rendered Wells’ original notion rather quaint and robbed it of much of its impact. The *sentiment* still holds, of course – the idea of hubris and tiny details overlooked – but the *particular* detail in question is no longer tiny to us, and is thus less than effective dramatically.

Stuck-Record

As mentioned earlier, the Martians could easily have evolved out of a 'natural' environment and into a state of complete 'antiseptic-ness'. They may simply have had no practical experience of or intellectual conception of germs or microbes. It's almost as if you give 18th-century South Sea Islanders lasers, fighting armour and tanks with which they then colonise Europe -- only to watch them fall prey to measles (entire communities were in fact devastated the other way around).

But I also think the quality of the demise of Wells's Martians is much more visceral and poetic than simply falling prey to the random tiny microbes in Earth's atmosphere. A major reason for the Martian's invasion of Earth is to feed. Human beings become the cattle of the invaders. They are bled/eaten directly by the Martians.
It's hard to see what precautions the Martians could take in this instance.

Think of it as a case of Intergalactic BSE. And let's face it, we're supposed to be smart but we didn't really see that one coming.

David

SR,

I’m swayed, just a little bit, by the BSE analogy. There’s potential, I think. Now if we could just go back and get H.G. to tweak the ending of his book and think it through a bit more, we’d all be happy. Hm. What we need is some kind of time travel contrivance, preferably with lots of brass, crystal and whirring dials. Yes, that sounds like a plan. What could possibly go wrong…?

AntiCitizenOne

I think a more likely twist is that the Alien invasion fleet crashes because no-one was clear whether to use imperial or metric units.

Rob

Or the huge intergalactic fleet in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which screamed towards Earth in an invasion, only to be swallowed by a small dog due to a disastrous misjudgement of relative size.

Horace Dunn

The twist should be that public opinion on Mars turns against military adventures. The pro-vegetarian newspapers and state broadcaster find the machismo of expeditionary forces rather distasteful, besides which it is perfectly possibly for Martians to live on a turnip-like vegetable that grows in profusion on the planet. There is no need to butcher earthlings.

The invasionary fleet is withdrawn. The invaders slink shamefaced away from Earth and return to their homeland, where they are shunned in the streets and face a life of unemployment and alcoholism.

shameless chatterati

The bleeding-heart earthlings would be saying...
'The martian attack was all our fault.
We shouldnt have the rovers/phoenix probe over there.
There's only a small percentage of extremist martians.
Most martians are moderates.
blah blah. etc etc'

AntiCitizenOne

Horace Dunn,

Not Turnips, but Asparagus! http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7477310.stm

Horace Dunn

AntiC

Well, well well.

It would really piss off Gordon Ramsey if they started selling Martian asparagus in London restaurants in November.

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