by Mel Valentin
M. Night Shyamalan ("The Village," "Signs," "Unbreakable," "The Sixth Sense"), hoping to recover from the critical and box office failure of his last film, "Lady and the Water" (billed at the time as a “fairy tale for adults”) is back after a two-year hiatus with "The Happening," a sci-fi/horror “statement” film centered on a localized catastrophe and possible environmental crisis. Slow to build, even slower to get to a weak, underwhelming payoff, "The Happening" is only a marginal improvement over "Lady in the Water’s" ludicrous plotting and unengaging characters. "The Happening" is also Shyamalan’s first “R-rated” film (for brief shots of self-inflicted violence and gore), a decision that doesn’t help "The Happening" overcome its myriad weaknesses.The Happening opens in New York City, Central Park to be exact. A woman (Kristen Connolly), sitting on a park bench, only moments earlier talking to her friend (Alison Folland), calmly removes a hairpin and stabs herself in the neck. In another part of Manhattan, suicidal construction workers fall from a half-built skyscraper while their foreman (Cornell Womack) looks on. Panic begins to spread, fuelled by rumors of a terrorist attack using chemical or neurological weapons. The Happening then shifts to Philadelphia, where a similar outbreak causes a suicide epidemic. News reports indicate an airborne toxin appearing in multiple cities across the Northeast, extending along the east coast and inland to Pennsylvania.
"Sadly, it's time to stage an intervention for Mr. Shyamalan."
Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a Philadelphia science teacher, learns about the outbreak at school. The principal closes the school and releases the students and the teachers. Fearing for his safety, as well as the safety of his estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and best friend, Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher, Moore decides the best plan of action is to leave Philadelphia for the countryside via train. Julian and his daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), join Moore, but his wife, stuck in traffic, doesn’t. They decide to meet up later in Princeton, after she takes a second train.
The train doesn’t get far. It stops in a small town, Filbert, where the train conductor informs the passengers that service has been discontinued. Contact with the outside world has been lost. Congregating in a local restaurant, Moore, Alma, Julian, Jess, and the others learn more about the attacks that seem to have spread from the largest cities to smaller population centers. A nursery owner (Frank Collison), suggests an explanation for the attacks, but no one believes him. Moore, Alma, and Jess, however, join the nursery owner and his wife, (Victoria Clark), on a drive to an even more rural area, where they hope to be safe from additional attacks. Julian leaves without Jess, hoping to find his wife in Princeton. Meanwhile, two young men, Josh (Spencer Breslin) and Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.), join Moore’s group of survivors, while an army private, Auster (Jeremy Strong), tries to figure out a safe out of the infected area.
The Happening borrows heavily from science fiction/horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Birds, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds where the focus is on the micro level, on a handful of characters and how they survive under extreme duress and extraordinary circumstances, rather than big picture, macro explanations or government attempts to curb or stop the attacks. The Happening, however, has little of the suspense, little of the tension, and almost none of the existential dread that made those films genre classics. Minus the first twenty minutes, when Shyamalan uses the “R-rating” to advantage and depicts increasingly bizarre, increasingly disturbing suicide scenes, most of The Happening focuses on Moore piecing together information from news reports and experiences, and Moore and the others searching for a safe zone from the attack. And that’s the storyline.
Well, not quite. Unclear as to where to take The Happening or even how to end it, Shyamalan unwisely introduces a third-act character, Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), that exists primarily to inject a dose of concentrated craziness into the stalled storyline. Mrs. Jones resembles the character Tim Robbins played in War of the Worlds, a ranting loon who occasionally makes sense and who, unsurprisingly, ends up posing a physical threat to the survivors. By then, though, all logic has disappeared and we’re left wondering where, exactly, Shyamalan wanted to take us. From the evidence onscreen, Shyamalan had a semi-decent premise, e.g., an inexplicable catastrophe causing the survival instinct to go awry, a handful of visceral images, and not much else.What "The Happening" does have, of course, is Shyamalan in “statement” mode. Using science fiction/horror/thriller conventions as a backdrop, Shyamalan wants to make a statement about how we need to take care of the world, become stewards again (i.e., become environmentalists), before the world turns on us, violently. Not that there’s anything wrong with Shyamalan’s statement or theme (it’s one that will resonate with many moviegoers), but it’s also clichéd, obvious, and banal. And with Shyamalan’s dialogue failing him, his characters, and the audience once again, it’s hard to imagine why "The Happening" was greenlit in the first place, even after Shyamalan took notes from movie studio executives and producers and revised his screenplay accordingly. Thankfully, Shyamalan limits his cameo to a voice on a cell phone.
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originally posted: 06/13/08 01:00:00