Having made his name—and perhaps exhausted his potential—with The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan became the guy known for the big twist, that twist being the inevitable third act reveal that would invariably blow what was arguably an otherwise absorbing, often marvelously creepy movie. As evidenced in Unbreakable and Signs, the follow-ups to his initial breakthrough hit, Shyamalan’s greatest strength by far has been his control of atmosphere and pacing, a remarkable ability to generate disquiet, to develop an almost hushed air brimming with elements of utter normalcy that made the gradual intrusion of deliciously ambiguous threat that much more effective—and the resolution that much more of a let down. Not one of his movies has an ending worth the name.
The big twist in The Happening however happens right at the beginning, when we quickly realize that Shyamalan’s not even going to bother with building up mood at all—not to mention character development—but rather dive right into the terrible conceit driving the picture. (And yes, I mean terrible in every sense of the word.) It’s as if rather than continue to take his cues from Hitchcock, Spielberg or Val Lewton, Shyamalan decided he actually wants to be Larry Cohen, the marvelous maker of outlandish low-budget hystericals like God Told Me To and Q: The Winged Serpent. Or better yet George Romero, whose legendary apocalyptic zombie movies more or less carve out the turf for The Happening’s scrambling trajectory. Problem is, unlike Cohen or Romero, Shyamalan takes himself so goddamned seriously, even when his ideas are so impossibly lame.
It all starts with crowds of New Yorkers suddenly going catatonic in Central Park before suddenly finding the handiest way to off themselves. The suicidal impulse spreads quickly, soon erupting in other cities dotting the Northeast—though, curiously, the phenomenon never crosses over into Canada—and pundits start guessing it must be the work of terrorists with some new biological weapon that reverses our survival instinct. Along with everybody else, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a veritable cheerleader for the scientific method, grabs his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and tries to escape to Philly, but when their train grinds to a halt in Filbert, the Moores are suddenly put in charge of a friend’s little girl (Ashlyn Sanchez) and must make their way through rural Pennsylvania while trying to figure out just what it is that’s, well, Happening!
Replete with James Newton Howard’s typically overbearing boilerplate score, The Happening is one mercilessly silly movie, which you’d hope would mean it’s also a fun movie, but what fun there is to be had is often had at the expense of the movie’s ostensible integrity. There’s a subplot about commitment anxiety that feels lazily tacked on, with Wahlberg and Deschanel, normally quite charming actors both, making what must be one of the most unconvincing young movie couples in recent memory, though it does arguably allude to Shyamalan’s own inability to commit to making something cohesive. There’s also a big-ass message to be rammed down our throats about environmental decay, yet even on the level of pure propaganda it’d handled clumsily and is devoid of any resonance in the story’s details. Wearing his influences so brazenly on his sleeve anyway, Shyamalan’s a filmmaker who might be best advised to just decide what kind of movie he wants to make—and given his way with exposition, it should probably be a B-movie—and work diligently toward it instead of fighting against it. There are far worse things in this world than a solid genre stylist—and in fact these days there are far too few of them—and if Shyamalan would just apply his talents toward something leaner, meaner and less pretentious he might just have a career yet.