Kevin's Review: The Happening - A Different, But Familiar, Shyamalan
by Kevin Powers
June 12, 2008
The Happening may not be a reboot of a previous storyline or character (ala The Incredible Hulk, also out this weekend), but it certainly aims to recharge M. Night Shyamalan's career. Since the writer/director (and sometimes actor) crept into the public consciousness with the Sixth Sense back in 1999, his career hasn't exactly gone skyward, save for the slight altitude gained from Signs in 2002. With his last two films, The Village and Lady in the Water, many started to believe that Shyamalan lacked the needed endurance. The Happening doesn't allay those fears completely, but it might help level out his reputation. With this film, Shyamalan embraces his first R-rating in disturbing, visceral fashion. While far from perfect, it's a blend of Shyamalan's trademark underlying distress and, for the first time, conspicuous acts of violence - the result of which is an unsettling fear and paranoia that follows you well after the film is over.
Unlike Shyamalan's previous, highly independent films, The Happening seems to take cues from a couple of other sci-fi thrillers, such as War of the Worlds and The Mist. One morning in Central Park something happens that causes masses of people to suddenly stop what they're doing and ultimately fatally attack themselves - jumping from buildings, shooting themselves, laying down in front of a riding lawnmower. The incidents are widely reported and in this post-9/11 world, naturally chalked up to a terrorist attack of some sort. Since the events are not isolated to New York, school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) catches wind of the news and hops a train out of Philadelphia with his disaffected wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter 8-year-old Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Their escape is cut short at a small town north of the city after the conductors lose contact with "everyone." Passengers and residents of the small town turn to the news and learn that the unseen phenomenon continues to spread, prompting most to flee northward to an area that appears unaffected.
Various theories are bounced around throughout the film as to the cause of the events, none of which are given any seal of approval. Being a science teacher, Elliot tries to systematically break down the evidence and happenings, which encourages the audience to consider the answer as well. This is first time where the film comes up short. The deconstructing dialogue and Elliot's self-talking proves malformed and often wrapped in forehead-slapping obviousness. The character's reactions and behavior prove equally stunted. The film does superbly well with the quirky Deschanel, but Wahlberg stretches his likability thinner than saran wrap. Other characters that come and go provide little color, beyond just a hue of blood red. Shyamalan also loses a few points for having a premise so reminiscent of other films. This might not be a criticism if it was anyone but Shyamalan, who we've come to trust him for his unique storytelling and creativity. That being said, he does an admirable job of adding his own trademark complexity and feel. He paces and texturizes the film in such a way that it feels like a classic (or maybe it's just reminiscent of one).
The idea that permeates the film more than anything, and which can be heard early on, is that "there are forces at work beyond our understanding." More disturbing than that is the idea that something could cause humans to go against their natural instincts - instead of fighting and fleeing, they stop and kill themselves. It's a fantastic angle. Considering Shyamalan's library of supernatural thrillers, The Happening is a refreshing and fitting complement. The film is certainly an outgrowth of the traditional Shyamalan formula, which people will either love or hate. Regardless of which camp you claim, it's hard to argue against Shyamalan being one of the most compelling, creative storytellers today. The Happening, happily, continues in that fashion.