- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
All photos © 20th Century Fox
Reviewed by David Medsker
he concept behind “The Happening” is absolutely terrifying. The execution of that concept, however, is another matter entirely. Shot in a manner that suggests all concerned had a flight to catch, the movie could have used more time in the oven, not to mention a stronger cast. It’s trendy to bash M. Night Shyamalan these days – fun, too – but his skills as a director cannot be denied, and the sense of dread that he wrings out of “The Happening” proves that as well as anything. Imagine what he could do if he worked with an equally talented writer.
The story begins one morning in New York’s Central Park. People walking through the park become disoriented, lost in thought. Then, they start killing themselves by any means available to them. Authorities are at a loss to explain the events, but terrorism is not ruled out. When a similar attack hits Philadelphia, high school science teacher Eliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his semi-estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) – along with Eliot’s friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) – board a train for western Pennsylvania. The train stops abruptly in a small town because the conductors have lost contact with “everyone,” leading them to think their final destination has also come under attack. Elliot meets a man who owns a nursery, who suspects that the attacks are not terrorists but nature itself turning on man. Stuck in rural Pennsylvania, Elliot puts his science smarts to the test to stay one step ahead of nature, which is all around him.
For a man who once had his pick of the cream of the crop, it must have frustrated Shyamalan to no end to resort to Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo for the lead roles. They’re all competent, occasionally exemplary actors, but Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody and Paul Giamatti – heck, even Abigail Breslin – they’re not. All of them are off their game here, acting as if they’re sort of infected but have not completely succumbed. Is this really the same man that directed Haley Joel Osment and Colette to Oscar nominations? Or did they succeed in spite of his efforts rather than because of them?
Shyamalan fares much better with the elements of his story than he does with the people responsible for playing it out, including one creepy scene in a field where he gives his invisible enemy vaguely physical form. Indeed, it is those scenes that will quicken your pulse faster than the series of gruesome deaths that people inflict upon themselves, which at times border on the absurd. Shyamalan has another problem in that the story just sort of stops and dies, much like the victims within it. And what is with the bizarre scene where Elliot, Alma, Jess and two boys run into a group of shut-ins? I understand its purpose, but it doesn’t feel at all genuine.
Despite its flaws, “The Happening” is certainly better than the god-awful “The Village,” and thank God Shyamalan seems to have gotten the urge to give his movies a Big Twist out of his system (though the actions of Betty Buckley’s character are up for serious debate). If I’m running a studio, though, I am not letting him direct one of his own scripts. One of his own stories, which is then written by a top-notch screenwriter (Frank Darabont, perhaps?), definitely. But it is now all too clear that Shyamalan is his own worst enemy as a multi-hyphenate filmmaker, something the makers of “South Park” lampooned brilliantly in a recent episode. Drop the title of ‘writer’ for your next project, and see how it works out.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
The movie is considered a box office disappointment, but the truth is the movie made three times its budget worldwide, and Fox treats the DVD release with the respect that type of profit margin deserves. There are a slew of making-of featurettes involving the Princeton car crash, M. Night Shyamalan's decision to go for a hard 'R' rating, then realizing the need to pull back, extended deleted scenes featuring intros from Shyamalan, and even a gag reel, which feels completely out of place but is included nonetheless. The best bit by a mile is Betty Buckley, in full bloody face makeup, winking at the camera. Yikes.