Rating: 1.5 stars
Oh, the quandary of M Night Shyamalan. On the one hand, you’ve got to really admire a guy who relies on good old-fashioned storytelling and suspense—nary a CGI effect in this guy’s films—to get the job done. On the other hand, enough already.
It’s all been down hill since the ingenious Sixth Sense, a film so intimate, so tightly directed, it made most viewers ignore the painfully obvious (how many times did that damn kid have to tell us that “they don’t always know when they’re dead?”). What followed—Unbreakable—seemed like a sophomore slump. But then there was a junior slump (Signs), a senior slump (The Village), and a post-graduate slump (The Lady in the Water).
Indeed, with The Lady in the Water, it seemed that not just the critics, but the previously on-board movie viewing public were over Shyamalan. He relied on too many trick endings (increasingly easy to figure out), too much dime store mysticism, too many eye-rollingly contrived scenarios. And what’s more, his “legend in his own mind” ego had officially become notorious. The Happening was clearly time for him to change. Show us something we haven’t seen before. Don’t make a film that seems like a glorified Twilight Zone episode. Don’t give yourself another cutesy cameo. And for God’s sake, don’t put your name pompously over the credits. But he did.
Actually, the only big difference here is that The Happening is rated R—a fact much trumpeted by the film’s advertising campaign. This promised, I suppose, something more dark, more sinister, less corny than his previous work. No dice.
Bottom line, Shyamalan is not born for the R rating. His films are wholesome, they’re throwbacks. He’s Rod Sterling living in a Rob Zombie world.
It doesn’t help that Mark Wahlberg gives his worst performance ever as Elliot Moore, the high school science teacher escaping a mysterious phenomenon with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a small child (Ashyln Sanchez), and assorted stragglers. Wahlberg always had a tendency to be a bit stiff and monotone in his delivery. When reined in, that can work in his favor, making him seem Gary Cooperish and heroically earnest. Here, he seems like he might actually be touched.
The fact that Wahlberg comes across like a simpleton is particularly problematic since he’s the only one who can figure out what the “happening” is. You see, groups of people are committing spontaneous mass suicide all across the East coast. It starts in Central Park, moves to Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square and now seems to be heading to the sticks. Is it aliens? Terrorists? Or is it. . .the plants?
To be sure, Shyamalan does some great things here. The beginning of the film, as the “happening” spreads, is scary and titillating. Construction workers hurling themselves off buildings? Cops shooting themselves with their own guns? Zoo workers making themselves tiger Happy Meals? Coooooool.
Also, he uses the ominous nature of wind to great effect—the “virus” seems to spread by wind.
But then all of the Shyamalan hokiness sets in. The journey to escape the happening becomes less scary and more improbable. Everyone’s reaction seems slightly off—no one panics properly and important relationships are merely hinted at (we’re supposed to be very invested in the marital problems of Alma and Elliot, but Shyamalan can barely muster up any interest in these characters, himself.) The film’s internal logic wavers. And then an over-the-top Betty Buckley—as a shut-in with a gun and a doll fixation—seems to wander in from a John Waters film.
Finally, there’s Shyamalan’s explanation for the happening. Yup, he’s preaching at us again! Pay close attention to the honeybees. (Actually, no need for me to point that out. . .early in the film, Eliot gives a speech to his class about the disappearing bees that functions as a thematic bullhorn.)
Oh well, I’m sure that once The Happening does middling commercial and critical business, Shyamalan will learn his lesson, regroup, and, humbled, go back to the drawing board. And if you believe that, I have a honey farm to sell you in Burbank.