Try to forget what you already know about M. Night Shyamalan. Forget his tropes, his types and patterns. Look at this film on the face of it. Like any horror movie, “the terror” is a simple, basic thing, with consequences that affect humanity. But the presentation of the ‘facts’ is muddled, and the intelligence of the main characters is questionable. Mark Wahlberg plays a high school science teacher who is among the first to deduce the source of the lethal ‘happening.’
With his wits about him, he traverses the Pennsylvania countryside, managing to make correct decisions that keep him and his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and friend’s daughter alive. Yet when the three of them have survived over 24 hours in this increasingly hostile environment they throw it away for one last quick hug (they have been separated by this point, but can speak to each other) so that they die in each other’s arms (they don’t die, after all). A romantic notion, perhaps, but completely unrealistic for these characters. After fighting tooth and nail for survival, there is no way they would give up in their current circumstances. They were safe, they had food and/or water, and they could communicate. If it had been weeks in that situation, maybe, but not after only a couple of hours.
As you may have guessed from the previews (like I did), or from Wahlberg’s non-veiled comments on Conan O’Brien, The Happening refers to a simultaneous release of plant and tree spores with neurotoxins that are detrimental to humans. This is in reaction to pollution and population density and is centered in the northeastern states. Actually, this is plausible enough with scientific details based in fact. What gets a bit out of hand is that this neurotoxin doesn’t just cause brain damage or kill the inhaler. It causes you to 1) repeat yourself; 2) halt then walk backwards a few steps; and 3) kill yourself in some horrifying and unimaginable way.
Here is where Shyamalan’s past belies this film. He hit the jackpot, not only financially but with audiences when he told the story of a little boy who could talk to ghosts. The scares of The Sixth Sense were not based in gore or cheap thrills. Instead he took a minimal approach of suggestion. In the first major fright of the film he has three shots in succession: a scared boy standing at the end of a hallway, a thermostat drop temperature quickly, and a housecoat flap by. It was at this point I left my skin, and my seat, along with the two friends I was with.
The Happening using none of this economy of image. Shyamalan decides to show a girl puncture her neck with her own hair stick, a man fly through a windshield and splat on the ground, and a man turn on a lawnmower and lay down in front of it. Perhaps he was relying on the fact that these are uncommon paths to destruction and therefore more meaningful to view. Perhaps he intended to shock the audience into the horror that awaits humanity if they refuse to alter their ways. If so, he missed the mark. It made the film more schlocky, unrealistic. It took it out of the realm of believable and into the world of cheap zombie flick.
Neither did Shyamalan get the usual performances out of his actors. He discovered Haley Joel Osment, revived the career Bruce Willis and showcased Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti. Here, Mark Wahlberg is not up to snuff, and neither is Deschanel, who are both very capable actors. Leguizamo plays a smaller role and is even more sniveling than usual. There is some nice camerawork by veteran DP Tak Fujimoto and moments where Shyamalan’s old stuff shines through (i.e. when the camera is trained on two, peaceful old trees while we hear toxin victims shooting themselves one by one).
This is not a great film by any standard and is certainly no where near Shyamalan’s best.