I very recently watched A Quiet Place and Bird Box, so I thought for my latest post I’d do a compare/contrast piece about them. Then I got the absolutely brilliant idea (if I do say so myself) to include The Happening in this comparing-contrasting fun-fest. Doing this works for two reasons. One, there are quite obvious similarities between The Happening and Bird Box that are hard to ignore, i.e. an “event” causes people to kill themselves. Two, I want my mental Venn Diagram of this post to go from this…
I’m separating my analysis into six separate categories: the gimmick, the setting, the protagonists, the monster, the plot, and the tone. At the end of all my Below Average babbling, I’m going to give an overall assessment of each movie and how much I’d recommend each one respectively. (I think people who have consistently read my review posts know how I rate things by now.)
Let’s do this.
1. The Gimmick
The gimmick of the movie is what draws you in. I think you can also call the gimmick “the premise,” but for such unique premises as the ones in these three movies, I’m going to call them gimmicks because that’s what they are.
So a gimmick is what catches your attention when you’re watching the trailer or when someone describes what a movie’s about to you.
For example, if someone is telling you about Bird Box, they’d say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the movie where they have to wear blindfolds all the time because they can’t look at the monsters or they’ll die.”
As you can see, Bird Box has an excellent hook of a gimmick. Not seeing a monster in a movie is a cinema tool pulled right from Jaws, the whole less-is-more type thing.
This even works in video games. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, if you look at the monster for too long, your character starts to lose his sanity. The game forces you, through its mechanics and the terror it inspires in you, to hide in corners and only peek at the creature.
So I would say Bird Box has a good gimmick. (We’ll get into whether or not it executed it well later on.)
A Quiet Place, as the title suggests, is about making as little sound as possible. The monsters in this movie are attracted to the slightest bit of noise.
This means that the sound editing of the film has to be top-notch. Fantastic audio design works well with the horror genre, so A Quiet Place definitely plays to the strengths of horror.
As far as gimmicks go, characters having to make little to no sound is indeed panic-inducing. I did not watch A Quiet Place in theaters, but I could totally imagine having to surreptitiously crunch on my popcorn for the whole movie. Now that would have been a nightmare.
The Happening’s gimmick relies on mystery. People around the world are killing themselves off for no apparent reason. The unknown factor is a major plus to the gimmick, and it’s part of the reason the movie might have drawn as many people to the theater as it did.
So I’d say that all three movies have very good gimmicks, at least on the surface.
2. The Setting
The movie with the best setting is A Quiet Place. I personally enjoy when horror movies have a centralized location where all the horror stuff is going down. The Overlook Hotel from The Shining is a good example of what I’m talking about.
Both Bird Box and The Happening occur in spread-out regions as the characters travel from one “safe” place to the next. The sense of claustrophobia a horror movie can get from a set location is lost.
In A Quiet Place, however, we’re stuck on the Abbott family’s farm. The farm and a bit of the surrounding area have been “sound-proofed” by the family’s father. He’s laid sand down to make noiseless pathways, prepared bunkers with insulated walls, and arranged lights for notifying members of his family if there is danger.
As we watch A Quiet Place, we know the location, so we are able to spend more time looking around for things to go wrong than we spend getting acquainted with the surroundings.
3. The Protagonists
I kind of don’t even want to talk about the main characters from The Happening. They were entirely forgettable, especially in the face of what was happening (The Happening, happening, get it?) in the world.
Plus, a lot of the dialogue for the movie was cringey and unrealistic. It felt more like flat and static characters dealing with a wild situation. People were scared of the mass suicides, don’t get me wrong. But they came across like artsy-fartsy scared, with long gazes, morose grimaces, and inane pauses in speech. There was none of the shit-your-pants kind of scared reactions that normal humans would have shown.
That’s a nice way of putting it actually.
The protagonists in The Happening did not come across as normal humans.
Bird Box has a much more interesting protagonist with a definite character arc. I know the movie started off as a book, and I actually feel that it might have done better as words on a page in regards to getting its ideas across. The movie tried its best, and one of the ways it succeeded was in the character of Malorie.
Malorie goes through changes as the film winds its way to its conclusion. Her character development mirrors the plot’s denouement. Everything comes together.
She starts off as a distant and closed-off introvert. The invisible disaster strikes, and you would think that it would worsen her self-isolating proclivities. But after meeting Tom, a fellow survivor, and having to take care of two children, only one of which is her own, Malorie learns to love and open herself up again despite the losses the world might confront her with.
A Quiet Place has a solid group of characters to follow. They don’t go through many changes, but at least they feel fucking human, which is more than the characters from The Happening can say.
Plus, you gotta love Jim from The Office.
4. The Monster
The monster is actually where each movie falls a little bit.
Let’s start with the best.
A Quiet Place’s monster is a thickly-armored creature that cannot see. Instead, it relies on hypersensitive hearing to attack and eviscerate its victims.
Design-wise, I liked that when the creature is walking around trying to catch a sound, you can see these plates of armor on its head region extend outward, revealing a gooey mass of, what I am assuming is, hearing organs.
They also have a set of Venom-like teeth, which never hurts to have in your movie monster.
The one big flaw with them is that the rules on how well they hear are never really laid out.
They can purportedly catch sounds from miles away. Once a sound is heard, they can move at incredible speeds to the source. If they can hear that well though, surely hearing the ragged breathing of a person hiding close by should be next to nothing for them, right? However, when Emily Blunt’s character is going through a muffled labor in a room with a monster inside, it does not locate her immediately.
Conceptually, I believe Bird Box has the best monster. Conceptually.
You never get an actual look at them in the movie outside of some drawings one of the crazed persons who has seen them makes. The monsters appear to whoever views them as their worst fear, so you think that they can change appearance at will. These visions are so horrible that they force whoever gazes upon them to kill themselves. (Except for really crazy people. They just go even crazier and try to get other people to look upon the monsters.)
One of the survivors Malorie meets swears up and down that the monsters are demons come to eradicate mankind. Where does he get this information from? For the rest of the movie, you’re supposed to understand that this is true, but I still don’t get how that one guy figured it out.
Bird Box’s inscrutability when it comes to its monsters is also one of its flaws. When the monsters approach, gusts of wind usually follow. But since you never see them, you’re left with even more questions about the monster. Are they physical beings that affect the physical world? Are they more gas than solid? Who knows?
In The Happening, the plants on Earth end up being the monster. They release some kind of toxin that makes humans kill themselves. Humans have damaged the Earth too much for the plants to stand it any longer.
I get the environmental message and agree that humans have done much to negatively affect the Earth’s sustainability…
…but I just can’t get behind every plant on the planet releasing this toxin. Plus, The Happening made it seem like plants targeted large groups of people and used the wind to move the toxin. How would plants know to do this? Where is the plant hivemind hiding?
5. The Plot
The best plot by far, I believe, is A Quiet Place. It tells a tight story without straying too far from the narrative. A family struggles to survive as monsters that prey on them attack their home. Bam. Quick and to-the-point.
Of course, it’s not just a barebones story with no emotional adornments. You get some nuance from the fact that the eldest daughter feels responsible for the death of her younger brother, the dad is struggling to prepare his children for a potential life without him, the young son has to deal with his fear of ever leaving the comfort of his home, and the mother has to go into labor with monsters around.
The one gripe I have with A Quiet Place is that part with the nail. A nail comes loose on a set of wooden stairs, and the mother steps on it, resulting in a not-so-funny Home Alone moment. She has to contain her screams of pain since even a whimper could bring those monsters running. (One does, in fact, show up.) But after that, the nail makes no other appearance. How did no one else step on it? Hell, how did the monster not step on it when he came down looking for the mom?
Bird Box’s plot is bogged down by exposition of rules for the monsters, but I am very fond of concurrent storylines. It tells two stories at the same time. The first storyline occurs in the present, as Malorie tries to get her children down a river on a small boat while they all wear blindfolds. The second goes back in time to the beginning of the situation, when Malorie first encounters the monsters and has to learn, with a group of survivors, how to avoid them.
I have a personal love for these kinds of stories. That’s why It is one of my favorite Stephen King books. I enjoy keeping track of the past and the present when I dive into a plot.
The plot of The Happening does not entice me at all. After the initial build-up of the mystery (which, I suppose, is actually done quite well), the plot just unravels when you figure out it’s the plants.
Plus, as I mentioned before, the dialogue just feels unreal.
6. The Tone
This is where The Happening excels. If there is one thing M. Night Shyamalan is good at, it’s setting up a great tone for a movie.
Of course, everything else falls apart, and no matter how good the tone is, it can’t keep the movie afloat.
For me, the tone of something is the vibe that visual and audible qualities lend to a movie. They’re the little things that can let you know what the movie will be like, functioning as a sort of signature.
For example, the tone of 2001: A Space Odyssey is undeniable. You have a great yet subtle orchestral score with classical leanings, long shots of space, and a focus when it comes to close-ups.
Shyamalan has, from what I have seen, done very well with setting the tone for his smaller movies. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs have set up the tone unbelievably well. Despite its incredibly stupid plot, The Happening does have that classic Shyamalan tone.
I do want to tip my hat to the movie’s soundtrack. It’s the only one of the three movies where I actually remember the melody to one of the themes.
Both A Quiet Place and Bird Box have suitable tones for what they’re going for, but there is nothing particularly a cut above the grade that I can think to mention.
Overall, I’d give A Quiet Place a rent-and-watch-with-a-friend-when-you-have-nothing-to-do-but-you-don’t-want-to-waste-your-time-with-a-subpar-horror-movie.
I give Bird Box a check-this-out-with-one-of-those-friends-who-likes-to-Google-fan-theories-at-the-end-of-the-movie-because-more-than-half-the-fun-of-this-movie-comes-from-speculating-on-the-monster-oh-and-also-Sandra-Bullock-will-give-you-Gravity-vibes-because-she’s-in-one-heck-of-a-panicked-situation-yet-again.
I give The Happening a save-this-movie-for-bad-movie-night-and-be-sure-to-try-one-of-the-drinking-games-they-made-for-this-movie-too.