2008 // USA - India - France // M. Night Shyalaman // July 7, 2008 // Theatrical Print
D - After Unbreakable seduced me with its empathic, gorgeous take on the superhero origin story, I came away an admirer of M. Night Shyalaman's ability to repackage well-worn stories with a fresh dose of pained humanity and absolute sincerity. Signs confirmed my assessment, as well as the writer-director's instincts for chills. The Village was... less great. Lady in the Water arrived as a sweet and embarrassing jumble, a vanity project with a sour aftertaste. And now we have The Happening, and given the public nature of Shyalaman's descent from artistic grace, how can this film be anything but a Rorschach test on how far the former wunderkind of genre filmmaking has fallen? To be sure, The Happening has a germ of the director's flair for compelling concepts and attractive composition. However, the film is so aggressively bad in so many ways, I came away wondering whether Shyalaman has always been a covertly poor filmmaker, or one who just matured into ineptitude.
The story is fairly straightforward, and in its outlines it shows some of Shyalaman's old grit for tantalizing hooks. Beginning in New York City's Central Park, some sort of silent, widespread biological or chemical attack elicits a horrifying change in people. First come the disorientation and the garbled speech, then an overwhelming compulsion for self-destruction. This might have come off as half-baked, but one of the film's rare strengths is the grim, gut-wrenching quality to the mass suicide set pieces. Construction workers casually walk off building girders. A man starts a lawnmower and languidly watches it circle around the yard before lying down in front of it. A policeman pulls out his handgun and shoots himself, and then a bystander retrieves the weapon and does likewise, followed by another...
There's a hint of nihilism in the glib, generally awful nature of the deaths that Shyalaman shows us. Fortunately, the filmmaker finds a handhold that prevents The Happening from descending into outright suicide pornography. Unfortunately, that handhold is high school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanal), who just might be the most uninteresting science fiction protagonists in memory. It's not that they're morons, although Alma has the moral development of a six-year-old. Elliot is a pretty competent guy, and his responses under pressure vary from admirably collected to all-too-understandable. Yet both Elliot and Alma are both about as exciting as buckets of dirty mop water, which is pretty unforgivable in a film allegedly about the awful human tragedy of unexplained mass suicides. I couldn't care less about whether this pair survived the mysterious attacks.
Elliot and Alma, however, didn't ask for my opinion, and they attempt to flee into rural Pennsylvania with fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). The biological attacks, you see, seem to be focused on population centers, although they are swiftly moving into more lightly peopled areas. I really shouldn't say more, because I would be ruining the... Oh, who cares. It's the plants, okay? The world's plants are apparently spreading a gaseous chemical into the air that triggers suicidal behavior in humans.
Now, I'm a scientist by profession, and this doesn't bother me as much as it seems to be bother some folks. Bad science is par for the course in science fiction. If a filmmaker can construct a forceful and humane story around a shaky factual foundation, I'm very forgiving. I was prepared to accept that ITSTHEPLANTS, because Shyalaman uses the conceit to set up some creative and wonderfully nasty plot elements. There's not a lot of cinematic terror to be had in undetectable crazy gas, so the sight of a sudden breeze blowing through the trees or the grass becomes a proxy for the biological menace. This leads to some improbable but oddly effectual scenes of characters attempting to outrun the wind, calling to mind The Day After Tomorrow's racing frost snap. Shyalaman also gets some nice mileage out of the notion that large numbers of humans seem to catalyze the plants' attacks, resulting in some fiendish sequences where splitting up is the wisest strategy.
However, The Happening's occasional moments of real horror don't make up for all the missteps, all the terrible decisions, or the sheer badness of the thing. It's tricky for me to put my finger on any single feature that dooms the enterprise. The killer plants don't bother me, and the plot is fairly unobjectionable. Yet Shyalaman just fumbles again and again. There's the tone-deaf approach to nearly every human interaction in the film, and the generally wretched performances all around. This goes for even the usually exciting Wahlberg and especially for Deschanal, who spends most of the film in a goggle-eyed, whiny trance, like a television-addled toddler. She's admittedly gorgeous and I know she can act, but Christ Almighty what is she doing here?
The performances might be where the rubber meets the road, but The Happening's teeth-gritting awkwardness extends deep into its direction and screenplay. You can almost see Wahlberg trying his mightiest, his gears grinding relentlessly during every oddly scored, jarring closeup as he tries to find something resembling a real human emotion in his character. But Shyalaman isn't having it. It's almost like the whole enterprise has to be as unpleasant as possible. I'm not sure what possessed the writer-director to render almost the entire supporting cast of characters as a pack of colossally unsympathetic oddballs (with the occasional shrieking lunatic) but damn if that isn't exactly what he does. It seems inconceivable that the cunning of Unbreakable's solitary weirdo—the supervillain hiding in plain sight, complete with purple monologues—has mutated into a gaggle of "colorful" people who don't act much like people at all, and serve no purpose but to perish without eliciting a flicker of regret from the audience.
What else is there? How about the endless, lingering shots that are intended to convey dread but only had me thinking, "I get it. You can cut away now." How about the unpleasantness of disposing of two young teenage characters in an unspeakably brutal fashion? How about a script that trades the ungainly stilted qualities of The Village and hokey earnestness of Lady in the Water for unintentional goofiness? How about story continuity errors that provide characters with knowledge they could not possibly have? How about Shyalaman shamelessly cribbing from one of the scariest moments in Signs, and thereby diminishing it? How about a falsely "ominous" ending that contributes exactly nothing to the film's blunt, damning environmental and psychiatric subtext?
I could got on and on. I won't, because I prefer not think about this wasteful disappointment of a film.