Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reel Thoughts: It's M. Night Shyamalan's Happening and I'm Not Freaking Out

The best thing I can say about The Happening is that I never saw director M. Night Shyamalan in one of his increasingly obnoxious "performances" in his latest film. It’s a cautionary tale about an attack on the Northeast US of unknown origin. Is it a neurotoxin like Sarin gas launched by terrorists? Is it an isolated event in New York City? Or is it something more primal? Whatever the case, it seems to make people kill themselves. It’s an interesting premise, but like most of Shyamalan’s later work, it’s marred by bursts of pretentiousness, bad acting and irrational plotting.

The opening feels like a direct rip-off of the chilling first chapter of Stephen King’s novel Cell -- a peaceful morning in Central Park turns deadly. Mark Wahlberg is miscast as a sensitive high school science teacher who flees Philadelphia with his wife (Zooey Deschanel), friend (John Leguizamo), and his friend’s young daughter. As the attacks increase, the film plays like a low-wattage War of the Worlds, from which it borrows liberally.

To be fair, Shyamalan crafts some shocking and satisfyingly creepy scenes, including a gruesome discovery in Princeton, NJ (which feels lifted from The Sixth Sense), and the viewing of a cell phone video taken at the Philadelphia Zoo (which echoes a similar scene from Signs). The biggest reason The Happening fails is because, in this paranoid post-9/11, Inconvenient Truth-informed era, the response to this threat from people and the authorities is completely unrealistic. People would react as if a "dirty bomb" had been dropped, barricading themselves in large shelters and fleeing in panic, like in the films Cloverfield, I Am Legend, The Mist and the flawed-but-intense Right at Your Door, which were all much better at showing an unstoppable menace.

You have to wonder if Shyamalan even knows human beings -- his dialogue and the performances he draws from Wahlberg and Deschanel feel like something a vaguely humanoid alien would create with limited interaction with the race. The truly spooky sequences make me sad that the film’s not better. The Happening is better than Lady in the Water, but only in the same way that the Hindenburg disaster was better than the Titanic.

UPDATE: The Happening is now avaiable on DVDfrom

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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