After his stunning breakthrough effort with The Sixth Sense (one of my all-time favorite movies), M. Night Shyamalan made two superb follow-ups with Unbreakable and Signs. It was then when many film buffs and critics alike, including myself, thought Shyamalan had the potential to be the next Alfred Hitchcock or maybe Steven Spielberg. We started to assume that whatever films he made would be both groundbreaking and Top 10 material. Sadly, though, we all may have jinxed him; or maybe the pressure was just too overwhelming. Whatever the reason, Shyamalan’s last two movies, The Village and Lady in the Water were not only disappointments, they were among the worst movies of the respective year they were released in. They were downright atrocities and borderline unreleasable.
So his latest feature, The Happening, looked to be about the kind of movie Shyamalan knows best. Similar to Signs, the film focuses on a global phenomenon and its effects on a small group of people. The Happening isn’t a success, nor is it a total failure. It’s not quite a return to form, but compared to Shyamalan’s last two efforts, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
I’m surprised that The Happening works as well as it does. This is because the majority of the story is told from the point of view from two people; people who we don’t really mind being around for 75 minutes. In performances that can best be described as adequate but nothing special, Mark Wahlberg plays highschool teacher Elliot Moore and Zooey Deschanel plays his wife, Alma. John Leguizamo has a role as fellow teacher Julian. Here Wahlberg plays a character that’s virtually the opposite of his role in The Departed. His character is overly sensitive and even a little femine; although resilient, like one character in the film suggests.
The first 30 minutes of the film are really good and Shyamalan seems to be at the top of his game. But the story he has written makes his directorial effort seem futile. The entire northeastern part of the United States has awoken one morning to the fury of mother nature. A fatal toxin has been released into the air, causing those who inhale it to become suicidal. At first this is believed to have been a terrorist attack, but as the effects begin to focus on less populated areas, that theory is thrown out the window.
Meanwhile, the people of Philadelphia, including Elliot and Alma, fear that their town may be among the next to be attacked. So the couple, along with Julian and his young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), decide to board a train heading westbound. After the train crew loses contact with “everyone” they decide to discontinue the trip and the passengers are stranded in Filbur, Pennsylvania. Sure enough, the toxin begins to show up and people around Elliot and Alma begin ‘offing’ themselves.
So what’s the film’s suggestion for the causes of this events, you ask? Well, the trailers obviously don’t want me to tell you, so I won’t. All I can say is that it’s scientifically not possible by any means. And it’s strange how this premise is both simultaneously intriguing and ironic but at the same time lame.
One of the film’s main problems is that Shyamalan appears to have had trouble with coming up with enough material just for a 91 minute feature. Some of it is lazily written, and some of it is strange. For instance, a plot development involving Elliot, Alma and Jess staying with an insane old lady feels so out of place that you wonder what Shyamalan was thinking by not immediately discarding the sequence after he wrote it.
The Happening is an effective thriller and features some genuine moments of suspense, but unfortunately the premise is so illogical and farcical, (and the more I think about it, downright silly) that ultimately everything the film has going for it feels superfluous. If you’re okay with suspending disbelief (and even those people will have to make quite a stretch), you will like this film. If you like your movies to be more real and convincing, then you will probably hate it. As for myself, I have to look at the whole scope of the picture. I think it’s mostly well made if not always well written, never less than watchable, but it fails on conveying it’s environmental message through an absurd plot. It’s not bad, but those hoping for Shyamalan to get back on track with another great movie will have to wait a little bit longer.