It's a good weekend any time there is a new horror release to check out in the theater. But when there's a new horror release and a high profile super hero movie, well, that my friends is a glorious thing. So it was with much anticipation that I headed to the theater on Saturday to take in "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Happening" in one sitting.
As for the latter, I won't get into my feelings too much because Eric did a nice job of wrapping up the few things that worked and the many, many things that didn't work in Shyamalan's latest film. There are two specific points that I want to add: one of which pertains to the narrative, the other will launch this weekend's business discussion.
The one thing I have not heard anyone mention in discussion of "The Happening" is that Shyamalan more or less lifted the central idea straight from an old "Swamp Thing" story written by Alan Moore (specifically, the conflict between Swamp Thing and the Floronic Man, otherwise known as Jason Woodrue). Now, that being said, it's very possible, and in fact probable, that Shyamalan had never read Moore's run of "Swamp Thing," and that this film passed through however many hands without a light going off in anyone's head that there were a lot of similarities between the narratives. "The Happening" is certainly different enough to not even approach any accusations of outright theft. My point is simply that even the idea, that plants might work together to "protect" themselves from humanity, is not really that original. It certainly hasn't been done to the scale that Shyamalan did here, but it's also not unheard of, and treads close enough to Moore's story that to not acknowledge the previous work is itself a little disingenuous.
The other issue raised by "The Happening's" opening is that while Shyamalan has a reputation for being an efficient filmmaker from a business standpoint (that is, he doesn't go over budget and stays on schedule), I was a little taken aback by the financials of this movie. When I was leaving the theater, I thought to myself, "Well, that wasn't very good, but it'll probably make a lot of money, and there's no way he spent more than $30 million on it." My guess was a little off; in fact, "The Happening" was shot for twice that.
That brings me to this week's box office report, which finds "The Happening" finishing in third behind the aforementioned "Hulk" along with last week's winner, "Kung Fu Panda." In reality, it was a pretty good showing for Shyamalan. "The Happening" was the only R-rated film to crack the top five, and it's $30.5 million makes it the second largest opening for a horror film this year (it also had the 2nd best per screen average, in case you were curious). But seriously, where the hell did Shyamalan and company hide $60 million dollars in this movie? As Eric and BGH commentors noted, this movie is basically a bunch of people running away from the wind. And sure, they probably had to rent some mighty big fans to make the grass blowing effects, but $60 million? Really? They better not have been giving that money to the stars, because lord knows they didn't earn it. "The Happening" probably won't be restoring Shyamalan's luster as box office gold, but it also shouldn't be nearly the poison that "Lady in the Water" was. I feel okay with calling it a step in the right direction.
I'll reserve most of my "Hulk" discussion for future installments of the Comic Century, but since we're here, we might as well talk some box. At $54 million over a three day opening, "The Incredible Hulk" will probably be viewed as something of a disappointment. With a $150 million price tag, it's unlikely that Universal will recoup their outlays in domestic box office alone. It's also conceivable that this Hulk will fail to outperform Ang Lee's 2003 version, which has been viewed, almost universally, as a failure. There's a lot of information to unpack in that comparison, and as I said, I'd rather wait to do so until I have more space and time to think, but off the top, one reason for this less than "incredible" opening is competition. We're at a point where every weekend is going to feature high profile films going head-to-head not only with each other, but with films that have opened in the weeks prior. "Kung Fu Panda's" continued success likely drew straight from the potential "Hulk" audience. Similarly, "Iron Man" is still showing in some 2,400 theaters, so there could very well be some superhero fatigue at work. That will be an even more important trend to keep an eye on as the comic hits keep rolling through the summer. By way of contrast, 2003's "Hulk" opened in October, after the real onslaught of popcorn movies has passed, so it likely saw less direct competition. To give you an idea, that October weekend also saw the release of "From Justin to Kelly," the ill-advised "American Idol" spin-off film, and a rom-com starring Kate Hudson.
Talking about "The Incredible Hulk's" performance is complicated by the fact that the film really must be read as a unit in Marvel's long-term movie plans. Many, many characters are introduced and/or tied in to the Marvel universe being created on screen, and the value in establishing those elements well is difficult to put a number on. "Hulk" also has yet to open in most international markets, and my guess is that it will be a very strong performer over seas. So while $54 million might not be exceptional, it's a nice starting point for a film that figures to have a long shelf-life, with many cross-promotions and alternate revenue streams to exploit.
For those of you jonesing for more box office data (I can't be the only one who consumes this stuff like it's sweet, sweet candy), check out the latest at the Horrors of 2008 spreadsheet, which has been updated to include "The Happening." And keep your eyes peeled for more on comic adaptations later this week.