At this point, M. Night Shyamalan’s press coverage has so overshadowed his filmmaking that to many, a review of his new film The Happening is almost superfluous, when his ego has already been so thoroughly reviewed and dismissed. But unlike the disastrous Lady in the Water, The Happening isn’t a film about Shyamalan’s ego, and its failings are not ones of hubris. For those who hoped for a return to form for Shyamalan, the good news is that The Happening is an old-fashioned creeper, similar to Signs in the way it uses a global disaster to explore intimate family dynamics. It’s so old-fashioned, actually, that much of the time it seems awkward and even anachronistic in its dialogue and scenarios, despite a modern setting and very modern subject matter.
The opening sequence, with ordinary people in New York City suddenly and inexplicably driven to calmly commit suicide by any means immediately available, establishes an effectively creepy and unnerving tone that is revisited periodically throughout the film but not sustained nearly well enough. Shyamalan then switches to his familiar milieu, suburban Philadelphia, to introduce high-school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), the film’s everyman hero. As word comes in of a mysterious neurotoxin spreading along the Eastern seaboard—one that causes the eerie compulsive suicides—Elliott and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) decide to flee Philadelphia for the countryside. Their journey quickly becomes desperate as the toxin moves out of cities into smaller and smaller pockets of population.
Plot-wise, The Happening plays out like a lot of end-of-the-world movies, with increasingly smaller bands of characters trying desperately to find safe haven from the implacable zombies/aliens/mysterious neurotoxin. In particular, it owes a lot to Shyamalan idol Steven Spielberg’s recent version of War of the Worlds, right down to its focus on an emotionally fractured family trying to come back together (Elliot and Alma, coping with marital problems, end up caring for the daughter of one of Elliot’s colleagues, giving them a greater purpose beyond saving their own lives). There’s a curiously calm tenor to the mayhem, though; terrorists are frequently mentioned as possibly being behind the attacks, but otherwise this feels like a pre-9/11 film, with people moving in a mostly orderly fashion away from what they perceive as the source of danger.
That’s very much in line with the outdated tone Shyamalan seems to be trying to establish, as Wahlberg and Deschanel both turn in performances so wooden and stilted that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been directed to act that way. The dialogue, too, is so on-the-nose and unnatural that it sounds like it’s been lifted from a particularly ripe pulp novel, or a lesser Twilight Zone episode. Shyamalan’s long been in debt to the likes of Rod Serling, but here he tries way too hard to emulate the rhythms of that style of writing and direction without fully exploring how it would impact such a contemporary story.
The effect, then, is to take you completely out of the moment, and it’s hard to feel a sense of danger for these characters who come off like they are reading what they say off of cue cards. Any time Shyamalan returns to depicting the mindless suicides, you’re reminded of how disturbing the movie could really be, but that feeling dissipates as soon as the characters start speaking again. It’s a shame that the movie is such a tonal failure, because it does many other things right, including forgoing one of Shyamalan’s trademark twists for a straightforward explanation of what’s going on that suggests a sort of starkly militant environmentalism. It’s a much more blatant stab at political commentary than Shyamalan’s ever made before, and an idea well worth exploring, but the movie’s style never allows it to come off as anything other than hokey.
That The Happening ultimately doesn’t work is a disappointment, but it’s heartening in a way to see that Shyamalan hasn’t curbed his ambitions or abandoned his risk-taking in the face of such harsh criticism. One can only hope that eventually his skills will once again live up to the grandiose undertakings he sets out for himself, detractors be damned.