The Happening has been blasted as M. Night Shyamlan’s failed attempt at a comeback film, but it is not as bad as most suggest. One thing is for sure: It is a vast improvement over Lady in the Water.
The most gruesome of Shyamalan’s pictures opens with a chilling sequence in New York City’s Central Park as its various inhabitants begin to commit suicide, with one woman stabbing her self in the neck with her hairpin, and construction workers jump off buildings like confetti falling from the sky.
At first authorities believe it is a terrorist attack involving chemical weapons, and several states in America’s east side are evacuated. Among them is Philadelphia, where high school science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), along with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and fellow maths teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) along with his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) leave for the country.
Together they travel through America trying to keep ahead of whatever is making people kill themselves, as others around them succumb to the “infection”. In turn the film morphs into a cross between the War of the World’s, and the daddy of sci-fi paranoid thrillers Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, this time there is no extraterrestrial threat, but an environmental one. An “environment killer thriller” if you will.
There are several good points. Wahlberg proves to be a sufficient leading man in a role for removed from his usual on screen persona; Zooey Deschanel is good (although her bug eye look can get annoying), and Leguizamo seems to be creating a career of being the best thing in poor / mediocre movies (Love in the Time of Cholera, Spawn etc)
James Newton Howard’s provides a biting score, and Tak Fujimoto’s photography is crisp. The real strength of this film, however, lies within its interesting concept of the environment – particularly plant life – laying waste to huge pockets of human civilization. It brings up many pressing issues concerning our world today such as global warming, over population, pollution etc.
Yet while The Happening proves Shyamalan is an excellent ideas man, his (dis)ability to take simple, interesting concepts and stretch them out into paper thin, often complicated plots has unfortunately become more of a trademark for the once promising writer/director than his astute writing and directorial sensibilities.
Such is the case here. After a gripping set up the plot becomes problematic, as the films characters throw out wild and vague observations about what is exactly “happening”, centres them as absolute fact, and then blows them off under the guise of “nature can never be explained”.
This may be true in real life, but within a 90 min film it becomes a tedious exercise of perseverance on the viewer’s part to not walk out as its tendency to over guess itself creates a messy web of confusion at its conclusion. Perhaps it would have worked much better if the observations were left to the audience.
So in all The Happening may not to be the disaster everyone has made it out to be. But it sure as hell does not meet the expectations placed on it either, and is another bump in the case of legendary status far too quickly bestowed upon the head of its filmmaker.
Strangely enough though, there is a belief that Shyamalan will once again match the bar he established in The Sixth Sense. Perhaps that is a phenomenon in itself.