Movie Review: The Happening
By Matthew Huntley
June 19, 2008

Marky Mark as a public educator does explain our country's test scores.

Anyone familiar with my reviews knows I've seen many bad movies, but The Happening is something special, a movie so unbearably bad it's practically indescribable. It single-handedly made for one of the most pointless experiences I've ever had at the movies and I cringe knowing how many people will see it just because they're curious about M. Night Shyamalan's latest "twist" ending. What that twist is, or whether or not there's even a twist to speak of, I will not say. But it doesn't really matter because it's not worth your time.

Some bad movies can be fun to review. Even the lowest of the low - Godzilla, Bad Boys II -allow us to take pleasure in criticizing them; they're sort of a way to vent our frustrations about over-the-top stupidity. But The Happening robs us of that. I walked away so bored and stupefied, so unaffected and numb, I felt cheated out of my time. Nothing "happens" during this movie that's even worth discussing. It's an unnecessary mess. It's not confusing or offensive, really, but bad down to its core ideas. My mind spins just trying to tell you how terrible it is, but it's not terrible in the traditional sense, which makes it even trickier. The Happening creates its own special category of bad, which, who knows, some might see as an asset.

The plot: a strange occurrence in the Northeastern part of the United States is causing groups of people to commit suicide. In Central Park, people suddenly stop moving and it appears as if time freezes. It's suggested that people's natural defense mechanisms are shutting down and they're inclined to destroy themselves. One woman stabs herself in the neck and construction workers start dropping like flies off a building. "God in Heaven," one many says.

In Philadelphia, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a science teacher who's telling his class about the recent disappearance of bees. There's a quote from Einstein on the board that reads, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live." Is there a connection between the decreasing bee population and the weird phenomenon taking place? Who's to say? As Elliot puts it, "There are forces at work beyond our understanding."

Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) decide to head south with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). They board a train in an attempt to outrun the supposed virus that's causing the population to kill itself. But the train stops unexpectedly in a remote Pennsylvania town because the conductor says they lost contact with...everyone.

All the passengers huddle into a small diner and anxiously watch the news waiting for an explanation. Is it a terrorist attack? An act of God? A prank by some high school kids? I wish I could violate the cardinal rule of film criticism and tell you, but just know it's not as intriguing as you think. Shyamalan misses an opportunity to capitalize on mankind's greatest fear: the uncertainty of knowing what to fear. The movie would have been much better off without any type of explanation and might have offered some insightful dialogue about human nature and humanity's inherent destructive forces, but we end up feeling and thinking nothing.

As the remaining citizens take off, Elliot, Alma and Jess end up on foot. They come upon desolate houses in the middle of farm country and are met by hostile inhabitants, the last being the kooky Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), who's paranoid they're out to steal her possessions.

I can't go any further without revealing crucial plot details, which is a shame, since they'd probably deter you from seeing this movie. All I can ask is, whatever happened to M. Night Shyamalan? He was once a promising and ambitious filmmaker, but in the last couple years, he's descended into obscurity and a bloated self-importance. With his much-maligned Lady in the Water (2006) and now The Happening, he seems to have abandoned all consideration of his audience. His movies feel like they're only made for him. He's like a painter who creates a portrait just to hang in his own living room. But unlike a painting, Hollywood movies are intended for an audience who likes to take part in the stories, not only for entertainment purposes, but as ways to learn, feel and enjoy. Shyamalan doesn't seem to care about the audience anymore.

There have been other obscure filmmakers, notably Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, whose films don't readily (and intentionally) make sense and aren't always easy to watch, but at least with them we get a sense they're trying to challenge and include us. The Happening, which is straightforward and bland, gives us a feeling of detachment. But it's not the eerie kind that would make us fearful for the characters; it's the kind in which we don't care about what happens. Its central theme of the environment fighting back against man is a mere platitude of wishy-washiness and leaves us empty and unaffected.

Watching the movie reminded of the scene in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles when Steve Martin lashes out at John Candy about how pointless his conversations are. "Didn't you notice on the plane when you started talking, eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn't that give you some sort of clue..." That's what I felt like yelling at this movie. During the screening, I felt disengaged and began thinking about errands I needed to run. I also checked my watch to have a better idea of when the 90 minutes would be up. At least Lady in the Water was bad in an interesting way. The Happening is bad in a boring, ineffectual way. It ignites no reaction. I was never curious, afraid, tense, sad, humored, angry. Nothing.

The actors don't help. Anyone who speaks any dialogue in this movie does so with the least amount of passion and conviction. They seem confined to reciting their dialogue as if it were a dress rehearsal. This is somewhat of a shock since Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo have all proven themselves before, but here they deliver their lines monotone and without fluctuation.

Instead of a big-budget Hollywood movie, The Happening feels more like a misguided student film, made up of scenes that lack relevance and purpose. One involves a botanist who asks Elliot and Alma if they like hot dogs, and then goes on to say how hot dogs have gotten a bad reputation, despite their protein. Later on, we see this same man eat a hot dog. Okay, is this the payoff to the earlier said dialogue? Is this supposed to be humorous? Ironic? Insightful? If so, why?

I'm willing to admit when I don't fully "get" a movie, but I won't say that about The Happening. Frankly, I don't believe there's anything to get. It's a dull, witless and frustrating movie to sit through. I'd say let it sweep the Razzies, but then I think no, because the less exposure this movie gets, the better.