Opening Friday, June 13
Mark Wahlberg as Elliot Moore
Zooey Deschanel as Alma Moore
John Leguizamo as Julian
Ashlyn Sanchez as Jess
Betty Buckley as Mrs. Jones
Spencer Breslin as Josh
Robert Bailey Jr. as Jared
Jeremy Strong as Private Auster
Alan Ruck as Principal
M. Night Shyamalan as Joey
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
(Spoiler Warning: We usually try to avoid spoilers, but it’s proven to be quite difficult with Shyamalan’s latest since part of the problems are specific plot points, including the ending.)
After a shocking introduction to what could have been a fascinating premise, “The Happening” quickly deteriorates into the worst movie of M. Night Shyamalan’s career… and that’s saying something.
A toxin unleashed in New York causes a wave of suicides, and science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) decides to leave Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Once outside the city, they discover that the horrors are spreading and closing in on them as they find themselves stranded in the Pennsylvania countryside.
In “The Sixth Sense”, Philly filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan made you see ghosts and then in “Signs”, he freaked you out with his frightening take on alien invasions. His new movie takes a similar approach with the “end of the world” horror movie, though he may have finally lost it if he honestly thinks that anyone can possibly be scared of the wind and trees, which is essentially what is expected here. Granted, a movie about an inexplicable and unstoppable natural disaster hitting the Northeast, causing suicides in the most heavily populated areas, has a certain flair to it, but Shyamalan executes the whole thing in such a shoddy way that the movie never lives up to its premise.
The “event” begins in Central Park where people freeze in their tracks before killing themselves in violent and graphic ways. At first, everyone assumes it’s a terrorist attack, that toxins have been unleashed that affect the mind instigating these mass suicides, so science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) decides it’s safer to get out of Philadelphia, hopping on a train into the Pennsylvania countryside with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) where they’re left stranded with a colleague’s young daughter. Eventually, a group converges in the fields trying to figure out what to do next, but they learn that there’s no escaping the problem that’s followed them.
Shyamalan’s attempted science-based disaster movie starts off well enough, with a number of shocking deaths shown in all their gruesome glory thanks to the film’s R-rating. By the time we see a zoo worker feeding himself to the lions and a man running himself over with lawn mower, the notion of a toxin that causes people to kill themselves has gotten silly, like a “Monty Python” sketch, and the results stop being as shocking, the gore being done more for the sake of sensationalism, without ever going very far with any of it. The movie just isn’t very scary even with Shyamalan constantly pulling every cheap horror trick in the book out of his bag of tricks.
For the most part, the movie follows a similar formula as “Signs”, creating confusion in the main characters by keeping them out of the loop and throwing obstacles at them along their journey of survival. It’s pretty ridiculous, especially following so closely after Frank Darabont’s “The Mist”, as Wahlberg, Deschanel and their young charge start running around the fields being chased by, of all things, the wind.
The worst and most inexcusable offense is the acting, which is embarrassing on every level. Mark Wahlberg is grossly miscast and completely unbelievable as a science teacher, exacerbating the film’s biggest credibility gaff, when this lowly science teacher is able to figure out all the answers that have been eluding the country’s scientists. Even so, the viewer usually will figure things out even sooner than the characters do, and it’s never a good thing when characters in a movie are dumber those watching it. Even worse is that this is “whiny Wahlberg” whose voice goes up two octaves whenever he’s scared or confused, which is essentially the entire movie. The normally decent Zooey Deschanel isn’t much better as she seems to have less of a grasp on her character than we do and the film’s attempt to show how this “event” helps bring this troubled couple together–it’s never quite clear exactly what their problem is and the duo have almost no chemistry, something that kills the credibility of this premise, making their scenes very awkward.
Even John Leguizamo, whose usual wit and personality makes him the film’s onlny saving grace, is gone in fairly short order, leaving the trio surrounded by non-professional extras with speaking roles, who barely can deliver their lines without overacting, before thankfully being killed off. The lack of strong acting across the board makes very few scenes as effective as they may have been intended, even when Betty Buckley shows up, bringing just the right amount of crazy to Mrs. Jones, a woman living in isolation encountered by the three survivors. At that point, the movie turns into something between “Psycho” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”, even throwing a creepy doll into the mix, just in case the movie wasn’t confusing and derivative enough already.
Shyamalan tries to keep things light amidst the intended tension, something that backfires as often as it works, but the entire movie is lacking in any of the visual style he brought to past movies, taking the film’s B-movie roots a bit too much to heart. Composer James Newton Howard plays Bernard Hermann to Shyamalan’s Hitchcock, but before long, you’re wishing he’d lay off the strings that completely overpower the entire movie.
The “event” ends just as quickly as it starts with the only explanation being that it was some sort of “warning” and Elliot and Alma move on with their lives as things go back to normal. It’s probably one of the most disappointing endings Shyamalan has delivered, on par with Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” At just under 90 minutes, the film suffers from the old adage about lousy food and small portions. Once it’s over, you feel you’ve been royally ripped off by the fact that the film has mostly failed to deliver on the promised scares.
The Bottom Line:
To some, this might be a return to “Signs” territory–to those who hated that movie, myself included, that’s not necessarily a good thing–but the results are a complete and utter mess that rarely justifies the ridiculous premise, failing to deliver any shocks or scares, but offering lots of overwrought drama, bad acting and general silliness.