Review: The Happening
3 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
M. Night Shyamalan, that India-born, Philadelphia-raised filmmaker who was compared to Alfred Hitchcock when he came on the scene with 1999's brilliant ghost story “The Sixth Sense,” has since become more analogous to Britney Spears. As is the case with the pop starlet (or a devastating car wreck), we know we shouldn't watch, yet we cannot look away. Given Shyamalan's ever-descending track record of duds (like 2004's bad “The Village” and 2006's worse “Lady in the Water”), moviegoers should be avoiding his latest offering like a supernatural plague. But like bees to honey, they will come out in swarms, thanks to the mystique of the director's perpetual promise of delivering scary thrills and twist endings. “The Happening,” while better than the titles listed above (save “The Sixth Sense,” of course), proves once again that Shyamalan no longer possesses the imagination to keep that promise.
Having tackled apparitions, aliens, superhumans and storybook monsters, Shyamalan looks to relevant themes as the inspiration for the menace in his new apocalyptic yarn. In what appears to be a pandemic, people across the northeast of the U.S. begin exhibiting strange behavior, then inexplicably committing suicide. As the death toll rises at an alarming rate (specifically in major metropolises like New York and Philadelphia), the nation is thrown into a state of panic and the cities are evacuated. First, terrorists are blamed for releasing a deadly neurotoxin into the air. When that seems to be less and less likely, theorists like inquisitive Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) start wondering if nature may be the cause. When the train that was taking them out of town stops unexpectedly in rural Pennsylvania and all contact is lost, Moore, his emotionally ambiguous wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his colleague and best friend Julian (John Lequizamo), Julian's young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and a handful of strangers must figure out for themselves what exactly is “happening” while evading an invisible killer.
The movie opens on a chilling note, showing the eerie effects of the “event,” as it is called, on a sampling of New Yorkers. In Central Park, people freeze in place and start uttering nonsense. A girl stabs herself in the throat with her hairpin. At a nearby construction site, workers voluntarily hurl themselves from rooftops. The suicides – many of which are far more gruesome, involving firearms and even lawnmowers – are what have earned “The Happening” it's R rating, a much-publicized first for a Shyamalan film. However, contrary to what the movie's promotional spots suggest, the envelope-pushing gore doesn't contribute much to the creep factor. The deaths here are often more comedic than terrifying, drawing comparisons to the work of George A. Romero. Had I not read prior to my screening that it was the director's intention to construct a “B” picture, the preposterousness of the material would have reached irredeemable levels. It's saved by Shyamalan's ability to successfully build suspense and to attractively stage some “jump-out-of-your-seat” moments.
Although M. Night's reputation as an inventive storyteller continues to wane, his talent as a visual craftsman is undeniable. Compositionally and stylistically, “The Happening” continues what has become a hallmark aesthetic for the mysterious auteur. Everything from characters' clothing, to locations (which are almost always in and around Philadelphia), to interior décor has a noticeably generic look, composed of muted tones and unremarkable designs that help to lock these stories into some fictional, cinematic place where the only style that exists is Americana. This backdrop is perfect for the meaningful use of vibrant color, such as the way red was implemented during scenes of heightened drama in “The Sixth Sense.” And as he did with 2002's “Signs,” Shyamalan depicts the landscape of his native state as a type of untouched, Mayberry nirvana, complete with welcome signs that could have been borrowed from “Back to the Future”'s Hill Valley. Neither the color nor the location techniques are used as effectively in “The Happening,” but both still bear the director's signature. And although this film is no shocker, his proficiency in framing and editing elicits that sinking feeling at least a few times.
While it's one of the more entertaining, “The Happening” is probably the least imaginative of Shyamalan's thrillers. Like them or not, his previous efforts boasted an inventiveness that made them stand out. His latest would likely slip through the cracks with dozens of other forgettable scary flicks if it didn't have his controversial name on it. It may make you jump, it may even make you scream once or twice, but “The Happening” ultimately registers as being empty and flat. Its story feels too easy, and its attempt to meld the clashing elements of contemporary, global stressors and ironic violence is not so much clever, but uncomfortable. As I said when I reviewed “The Village” in 2004, Shyamalan seems to have milked his trademark spooks dry. In the subsequent four years, he's created two more films of a similar, shall I say, “nature,” and my opinion remains the same. Usually, when artists hit a dry spell, they try their best to reinvent themselves. If this director doesn't do so soon, viewers who can't help but watch his habitual wrecks may finally listen to their consciences and keep on driving.