Movie Review: The Happening
By Sean Collier
June 16, 2008
In M. Night Shyamalan's critically maligned Lady in the Water, the prophetic title character looks at Vick Ran, a character played by Shyamalan himself, and says, "Your words will be the seeds of many great thoughts. They will be the seeds of change." This was concerning enough in that film, a meandering and self-indulgent mess that also diverged from its plot to take shots at film critics. After a viewing of The Happening, however, it appears that Shyamalan actually believes that statement to be true.
Written, directed and produced by Shyamalan, The Happening opens with a sequence of unexplained and horrific suicides radiating from Central Park across New York City. Terrorists are swiftly blamed; it appears that a toxin has been released that inhibits the mind's ability to protect the body from harm. (Which would explain people neglecting to buckle their seatbelts, not people shooting themselves in the head, but let's not split hairs.)
Meanwhile, super-cool high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is ominously discussing recent honeybee disappearances with his class, with a few pauses to tell a quiet student how attractive he is (seriously.) News of the incident (no, I will not call it a happening) reaches the school, and class is dismissed. Moore stops to discuss things in a stilted and awkward fashion with his buddy, math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo,) then heads home to his weird-for-no-good-reason wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel.)
Everyone sits around watching the news for a few minutes, and then the Moores make a break for the countryside along with Julian and his young daughter Lara (Crash's Ashlyn Sanchez.) From there, we hop from small town to small town, hoping to find a place where people aren't hanging themselves, dismissing the possibility of terrorism and leaping from one far-fetched explanation to the next along the way.
It should be noted that through this first act of exposition and introduction, everyone acts just a little bit funny. At no point does Shyamalan's dialogue or storytelling seem real; even simple actions produce a tinge of confusion, from Alma dealing with an unwanted phone call to Elliot confiding in Julian. Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo seem to be trying hard enough, and we know they can act; it follows, then, that Shyamalan has lost his touch for dialogue. Perhaps he could do with that move to Hollywood after all, if only to utilize the talents of co-writers once in a while. (Speaking of acting, more than 90 seconds of a brief but strong appearance by Alan Ruck would've been nice; also keep your eyes peeled for a split-second appearance by Dante himself, Brian O'Halloran.)
The film picks up a bit towards the middle; along for the ride, one can't help but be vaguely disturbed by the subject matter, which is truly horrific. These horror sequences are the strongest points in the film, and if the plot remained pointed towards them and away from long shots of Wahlberg thinking and trees swaying ominously, a serviceable horror flick could emerge. As it is, these scenes are merely reminders of what The Happening could've been.
As the film trudges toward its predictable ending (rejoice and be glad, for The Happening doesn't twist even a little,) the dialogue remains preposterous ("I need out of this nightmare!") and the staggering ridiculousness of the conclusion becomes more and more inescapable. Even those friendly towards Shyamalan's methods will find the final scenes of The Happening hard to swallow. And through it all, he can't stop preaching at us; he's convinced that his words will be the seeds of change, and he isn't going to let us out of the theater until he's sure we get the idea.
The fact that Shyamalan keeps himself off screen in The Happening is small comfort in a film as message-driven and urgent as a Michael Moore documentary. The irony of all this moralizing is that very little of the drama and intrigue in the film is unique to the menace at hand; about five minutes of dialogue could be changed to make The Happening into a zombie movie. In fact, the differences between this and 28 Days Later or the original Night of the Living Dead are few; but whereas 28 Days Later was effective horror and Night of the Living Dead made its point with subtlety and care, The Happening fails to truly scare and tries far too hard to preach.
At moments few and far between, the fine director that still resides somewhere inside M. Night Shyamalan pokes through. Furthermore, the fact that The Happening remains free of both extreme plot twists and Shyamalan's face is a positive step for the still-young director. However, if someone doesn't slap some sense into Shyamalan soon, he may wander too far afield to ever be brought back. It's time for him to work with some collaborators — perhaps lend his eye to someone else's script, or let one of his ideas bounce off of another writer before putting it in front of the camera. Hopefully The Happening will eventually be regarded as a misstep rather than a career killer.