Shyamalan has a lot to make up for with his last film Lady in the Water, which was arguably the second greatest example of pretentiousness in filmmaking in recent history, second only to There Will Be Blood. The problem was that he had gotten away from excellent storytelling, characters everyone could resonate with and a concept that people could buy. It is unfair to judge Shyamalan’s latest offering as something that’s supposed to fill the deficit, but on the other hand, it’s hard to get away from that mentality. With that said, The Happening only proves that Shyamalan is farther off the beaten path than we feared and it’s going to take a few more films before he finds his groove again.
At its core, The Happening is a natural disaster/phenomenon survival film, akin to movies that feature tornadoes, avalanches, cave-ins or freak volcanic eruptions in downtown Los Angeles. The difference here is that the disaster is some kind of airborne agent that causes the victims to kill themselves in (sometimes) ridiculous ways. As explained on the news, the agent turns off the self-preservation switch, which seems like a silly explanation since the opposite of self-preservation should be disregard for safety, not suicide. In any event, the story proper follows Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a Philadelphia high school science teacher, as he tries to first escape the phenomenon, then simply survive within it with his wife, played by Zooey Deschanel.
The conceit of the film is admittedly creepy. It’s one thing to fear that someone might kill you. It’s entirely something else to fear you might kill yourself, and in the most gruesome and painful ways, no less. It sets up a nice prize for the audience in the end which is when they expect the explanation to be revealed. Unfortunately, a character guesses the answer early on and the rest of the film straightforwardly sticks with that explanation. Revealing the cause here might spoil the movie, so lets just say that Al Gore would be proud. The problem is that the phenomenon is such a wonky idea, it’s difficult to understand it and therefore fear it. For instance, the phenomenon inexplicably targets increasingly smaller populations. As a band-aid, characters answer “why” questions with “it’s an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it.” Regrettably, that isn’t very satisfying from an audience perspective.
The other big disappointment here is that the characters lack depth. Elliot and his wife hint at marriage problems, but that conflict is simply resolved by a joke, literally. There’s a scene later that’s supposed to show that their relationship is solidified, but their subplot is so tangential, you’ll probably be left wondering why that last scene was necessary, since nothing was developed to make us care about their relationship. Moreover, the people that Elliot and his wife meet suffer from the same problems the Lady in the Water characters did: They’re pointless characters that are given too much texture, from precocious kids that give relationship advice to a creepy hermit lady. In the end, these characters are a wasted investment of time and emotion getting to know them.
Lastly, a few words should be devoted to the “first Rated-R Shyamalan movie” sales story that the marketing is trying to push. It’s just a useless gimmick that takes you out of the film more than it engrosses. At one point, the survivors are running away from the phenomenon, but one of them uncharacteristically lingers behind to watch a man run himself over with a lawnmower. Was that really necessary to see?
In the end, you’ll probably be asking yourself the same question about The Happening as you leave the theater. The answer is “No.” What I would like to see is a drama or an action movie directed by Shyamalan. I think he’s a creative guy and his directing style and use of long shots would lend themselves handily in unexpected ways to other genres. He just needs to find himself some writers to help him get back on his feet.