Whenever I hear that a new M. Night Shyamalan movie is hitting the screens, I always hope that the film will somehow manage to capture the same sense of awe I felt after my first viewing of his career-making hit, The Sixth Sense.
Shyamalan’s movies have been in a downward spiral of quality over the past nine years, from his above-average (but incredibly preachy) take on the typical alien invasion story, Signs, to his abysmally terrible box-office flop Lady in the Water.
It’s difficult not to enjoy the beginning and middle sections of Shyamalan’s movies, as he’s clearly a talented director who can create tense, mysterious atmospheres that hold an audience. However, it’s also difficult not to be disappointed with endings that, while attacking contemporary issues in a paranormal context, are often didactic to the point of nausea.
The Happening is the story of a young couple, Elliot and Alma Moore (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) desperately trying to escape an epidemic that is causing mass-suicides across the East Coast of the United States. Once again, we are presented with an interesting concept that ultimately falls flat due to poor script-writing, terrible acting and ham-fisted moral lecturing.
I can get over the pseudo-scientific explanation for the epidemic – it’s no less far-fetched than many science-fiction thrillers of late – but it’s the character interaction that really lets the film down.
Terrible dialogue seems to have become Shyamalan’s trademark as of late, providing us with characters who, in an attempt to sound natural, instead come across as mentally handicapped. Some of the movie’s more competent actors manage to get through the adolescent dialogue without too much embarrassment, but the movie’s main focus is on the young couple, portrayed by the two worst actors in the film.
Wahlberg has put in some great performances throughout his career (see: Boogie Nights, The Departed). The Happening, however, proves that the awful Planet of the Apes remake was not the lowest point in his career.
Wahlberg’s various roles have generally presented him as a gruff, masculine hero-type, obviously because he fits the description perfectly. It seems, though, that Shyamalan tries to tone down his masculinity in order to humanize the character; an every-man, high school science teacher. The problem is, Wahlberg’s attempts at this tend to involve him using a strangely sing-song, slightly higher pitched voice that simply makes him annoying.
Zooey Deschanel, who generally provides a wry charm and wit to her roles, enters the film with a wide-eyed fearful stare (lasting the entire movie) that was clearly meant to invoke empathy from the audience.
However, her Alma Moore is an entirely uninteresting character who seems to act as little more than a baby-sitter for the film’s token ‘disturbed child.’ Deschanel’s performance eventually gets slightly better as the movie progresses, but not in time to provide any kind of sympathy for the couple, or their lamely-troubled marriage.
This sub-plot – if you can even call it that – involving their domestic troubles seems tacked on, and is resolved in approximately two minutes of dialogue and some awkward smiling between the two actors, whose chemistry is dubious even to the most unkeen eye. The inadvertently hilarious scene where Elliot seems to be unintentionally hitting on one of his attractive (male) students might provide an alternative reason as to why his marriage is failing.
The plot suggests, for the first fifteen minutes, that there could be various reasons behind the epidemic, but this ambiguity is quickly eroded and then entirely lost in an ending monologue that shoves an environmentalist’s fist directly down your throat. The director claimed that this film was inspired by paranoia thrillers such as Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet it fails as a tribute to a genre that relied on subtlety and mystery to provide its audience with fear.
Even if the acting had been superb, Shyamalan’s over-the-top environmental preaching will have even the hippie audience shaking their heads in disgust. It’s time for Shyamalan to understand that while he may be a talented director, his pseudo-spiritual personal philosophy does not make for grand storytelling. What happened to plot-twists that were actually pivotal to the story?
The Happening is certainly one of Shyamalan’s worst films. We can only hope that his ego shrinks sufficiently for him to finally stop taking on the no-doubt difficult tasks of directing, producing and writing his movies: We’d be ever so grateful if he’d allow a few other people to temper his self-indulgent creative visions.