Poor M. Night Shyamalan. Talk about losing one’s mojo. Following his career has been like watching a helium balloon slowly deflate. Sitting through The Happening, it’s almost impossible to believe that this film is the work of the same man who once brought us The Sixth Sense and Signs.
In terms of an obligatory recap (spoilers ahead), The Happening is about an airborne toxin of botanical origin that first sweeps through big city parks, causing disorientation, confused speech, momentary paralysis, and, finally, an immediate mass suicide prompt. The toxin quickly spreads from the most densely populated areas to the outlying secondary most populated areas and on down – at first giving the hopeful impression that our background landscape has developed an actual plan of destruction. It’s an almost-intriguing concept that Shyamalan teases us with but never fully commits to.
Trying to stay one step ahead of the ominous sometimes breeze/sometimes wind that carries the plant toxin is the requisite ragtag bunch of survivor hopefuls that include science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg, whose own acting career proves that Shyamalan isn’t the only one not living up to earlier promises), his almost-adulterous wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and his fellow teacher and best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Along the way, Julian opts out to go find his incommunicado wife in New Jersey, leaving Elliot and Alma to assume parenting duties to little Jess as they pick up a hot-dog-loving, cross-eyed nursery owner (Frank Collison) and his wife (Victoria Clark), the mandatory military presence (Jeremy Strong), two teenage boys (Spencer Breslin, older brother of Abigail, and Robert Bailey, Jr.), and a small group of indistinguishable fellow survivors who are easily identified as fodder for the plant toxin.
Even though no one really knows what’s going on and the group’s actions are pure piecemeal speculation, apparently only Elliot and Alma really know how best to dodge the wind – or they have some inexplicable immunity. In just one of the gaping holes in the logic that plagues the film, we’re never really sure which or why. Soon everyone but the Moore’s and their young charge succumb, and the surviving trio find themselves holed up in the ramshackle country home of the deliriously deranged Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) whose paranoia and distrust of the outside world soon prove more dangerous than the insidious plant spores blowing around outside.
But as quickly as the wind starts blowing, it suddenly stops. What follows is the requisite disaster movie-esque happy ending involving a home pregnancy test tempered by the obligatory ominous warning about the events of the titular event being a warning against planetary abuse courtesy of a talking head on a background TV (watch for the odd, thinly-veiled reference to 9/11). Flash forward a bit to the predictable Paris-set “here it goes again” ending. Roll credits. Scratch your head.
As a screenwriter, Shyamalan tanks here with a script that’s devoid of all tension and mystery, leaving the film’s genre classification as an eco-thriller stretching the limits of credibility. The dialogue is so downright laughable and improbable in parts that one almost excuses the poor performances (see below). As a director, there are glimpses of his former greatness sprinkled in between the inanity that show Shyamalan knows how to skillfully set up a scene. There are a handful of effective moments here, most notably in the opening New York City attack, in a subsequent scene where an outbound Philadelphia passenger train comes to a stop in the middle of small town Pennsylvania and the passengers gather outside, and in a scene during which various survivors arrive at the center of a literal crossroads with stories of what they’ve just come from that’s vaguely reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Fog where survivors converge upon the old church.
Thankfully, Shyamalan knows a thing or two about how to partner with those who can help ratchet up the actual production a bit – here best exemplified by James Newton Howard’s effective musical score and Tak Fuijimoto’s striking cinematography. Conversely, he seems to turn a blind eye to the acting in The Happening, coaxing abysmal lead performances out of Wahlberg and the ludicrously wide-eyed Deschanel while relegating the far superior Leguizamo and Buckley (who lends more creepiness to the film in her mere ten minutes of screen time than Shyamalan can pull off in the other eighty minutes combined) to yeoman’s work. Little Sanchez is no Dakota Fanning or Abigail Breslin either, possessing little of the charisma or endearing kiddie charm required to make us feel anything but indifference toward her character. Blink and you’ll miss the cameo by Alan Ruck (here playing the Principal of the school where Wahlberg and Leguizamo teach), a wonderful and sorely underrated character actor perhaps best known as sidekick to Matthew Broderick’s titular character from 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and his work on TV’s Spin City.
Shyamalan critics seemingly fall into two camps: the ones who wrote him off after The Village and the ones who’ve stayed later at the dance hoping that he’d regain the momentum that began with The Sixth Sense. I fall squarely into the latter, being among the minority that actually enjoyed The Village and (to a slightly lesser degree) Lady in the Water. Sure I saw the flaws and could understand the frustration, although perhaps not to the degree or the fervor with which he was decried by detractors. Sometimes hype is the worst enemy of a newbie and fair-haired children fall the hardest. But I also understood The Sixth Sense as Shyamalan’s premature ejaculation, understanding that it would take awhile to coax another cinematic erection. Sadly, The Happening will be a non-event, a flaccid addition to Shyamalan’s shrinking credibility as a Hollywood triple threat.