As one of the three or four people who will admit to actually liking M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water (2006), I was hoping that his The Happening (alas, not a remake of the hipper-than-thou 1967 film of that title) might be better than everything indicated. The trailer for the film was awful, and the rumors (which proved to be true) concerning the story line were worse. Plus, the attempt by 20th Century Fox to tantalize the viewer with the fact that this was Shyamalan’s “first R-rated movie” smacked of desperation. However, after seeing the film, it must be said that it lives up—or down—to the prerelease indications and then some. At the same time, I have to say I liked it better than The Village (2004), but then I’d find just about anything short of cholera preferable to that film.
The Happening is one of those movies that’s impossible to discuss with any degree of depth without getting into the plot. So I’ll warn the reader now that I will be trading in the realm of spoilers here as concerns what the movie is about—something the advertising has tried to keep secret. And no, I won’t be revealing the famous “Shyamalan twist,” since The Happening eschews that trademark—unless the film’s utterly predictable coda can be said to qualify. My own feeling is that the story was kept a secret in order to prevent potential viewers from saying, “Well, that’s dumb.” And while it’s not good critic-speak, I’d agree. This is a dumb story populated with dumb ideas, dumb dialogue and dumber characters.
The movie starts off with people in New York City suddenly becoming disoriented. They walk backwards, stand still and ultimately kill themselves. This, by the way, is where the much-touted R rating kicks in, though the people who have called the film unrelentingly gory obviously don’t get out much. Compared to the work of David Cronenberg or Martin Scorsese, this is dime-store stuff; carnage for the easily shocked. Worse, the material quickly loses its edge to such a degree that the killings become less shocking than they are silly.
So what is causing the disorientation? Believe it or not, it’s plants. Somehow or other—there’s some folderol about the plants unleashing neurotoxins—the whispering grass tells the trees to cause the planet-destroying bipeds to off themselves. Just how this virulently antisocial flora manages to convince the wind to carry its neurotoxins in specific directions is never addressed. But then the film never bothers to wonder why the plants would opt for such an absurdly convoluted and theatrical approach to killing off humans in the first place, nor how any of this ties in to the erosion of the honey-bee population, the disappearance of which the film insists spells our impending doom. (The script even makes up a “quote” from Einstein to prove it.) Are the plants killing off the bees, too? One would presume these leafy boys would be kindly disposed toward an insect so intrinsic to their sex lives and propagation. Shyamalan doesn’t tell us the answer. Perhaps the bees are hiding out in Argentina till it’s over.
In essence, what you end up with is a cross between Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Shyamalan’s Signs (2002). This movie not only boasts a variation on Tomorrow‘s ecological apocalypse, but it challenges that film’s most ridiculous idea—outrunning the cold—by coming up with people outrunning the wind. The approach to it all is Shyamalan’s typical small group of family members (and extended family) up against the end of the world—just like in Signs, only funnier.
The Happening rarely makes any sense—even on the simplest level. How, for instance, does someone crash through the windshield of a car after flying over Leguizamo? Yeah, he’s not all that tall, but unless he’s still playing Toulouse-Lautrec from Moulin Rouge (2001), I’m not buying it. And the movie’s “three months later” ending is purely preposterous.
The acting is also abysmally bad, but no one could go best two falls out of three with Shyamalan’s dialogue and win. The usually reliable Mark Wahlberg (“Be scientific, douchebag!”) looks downright embarrassed as the world’s dumbest science teacher. Zooey Deschanel plays the entire film with a look of surprise that suggests someone smacked her in the face with a board just prior to every take. John Leguizamo is, well, John Leguizamo. The rest of the cast is just amateurish, except for Betty Buckley, and her performance only works because it’s impossible to overact the character she’s been handed.
There are flashes of creativity. The entire sequence with Betty Buckley is at the very least agreeably odd. And the business with the speaking tube is a nice touch—though it would be better if the dialogue sounded even vaguely natural, but Shyamalan’s tin ear killed that. In the main, the greatest value of The Happening lies in its great supply of unintentional mirth. Rated R for violent and disturbing images.