Idea. Let’s pitch a movie about some unexplainable occurrence that causes people to inexplicably kill themselves. Then M. Night Shyamalan can direct it so people will invariably think there is a monumental twist at the end. And to make it even more eerie and intriguing let’s name it The Happening.
There you have, in a nutshell, what I suspect was the thought process for the movie (although M. Night wrote, directed and produced the whole feature). The Happening, unfortunately, turns out to be a movie that relies more on the past of body of work of its director than on substance. It’s a thriller with little thrill. It’s one of those movies that looks so much better on the paper than on the screen. From a critic’s standpoint, I think this movie ranks in a dead heat with Shyamalan’s worst offerings – The Village and Lady in the Water.
Marky Mark, err, I mean Mark Wahlberg is Elliot Moore, a high school biology teacher who, along with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), finds himself scrambling to escape an unknown phenomena that causes people to instantly stop what they’re doing and commit suicide by any means available. Is it a biological weapon released by terrorists? Is it the government testing something on its citizens? When you find out the answer (I won’t spoil it here), you’re going to get angry – very angry. Not so much in the unimaginative “twist” but more in how poor the overall ride turns out to be.
Mostly, there is no level of intimacy with the characters. Early on Elliot and Julian are talking about Elliot’s marriage being on the rocks. Shortly thereafter, we’re clued in on Alma talking with her would-be lover. So what exactly is the purpose of setting this up? To have Elliot and Alma tell each other that even though there are transgressions between them, they still love each other? Was it to show us that the indomitable will of humans can overcome and bind even in the darkest of hours? And what was with the crazy lady they meet in the middle of nowhere? A good portion of the film occurs with her in it, but what importance did she have? Don’t ask me, I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out. What I did know was I couldn’t care less.
What I did like, in a proof of concept sort of way, was the idea that at any time, our ticket, as a species, can be cashed in without warning. While the story is mostly unfulfilling, it definitely causes one to stop and take notice – we are living on borrowed time – after all, the dinosaurs disappeared in a flash and so can we. In a creepy sort of way I was also transfixed by the methods that some people went through to end their lives. Slashing wrists with a jagged piece of glass or laying prone in front of a landscape mower are a couple of the more gruesome, and thus more memorable, ones that come to mind.
But as a whole, The Happening felt like an incomplete work. The concept was in place but the delivery was uninspiring and poorly thought out. I think it is time to revoke the pass M. Night Shyamalan received when he burst onto the scene with 1999’s The Sixth Sense. He’s trying so hard to recapture that moment, that he’s forgotten how to break a story down to the basics . . .