STARRING: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo

2008, 88 Minutes, Directed by:
M. Night Shyamalan

Shhht. Don’t say it out loud, but we actually think that M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie wasn't all that bad . . .

Just don’t spread it around. We’ll lose all credibility with our fellow movie critics. Over the past few years director Shyamalan has become the fashionable whipping boy amongst cynical critics. After all, who can blame them? After kicking off his career with the hugely popular Sixth Sense (and come on, who did see that ending coming?) he went on to the interesting, but flawed, Unbreakable (starring Bruce Willis again). From there on it was all downhill, making Shyamalan the career equivalent of Orson Welles who also kicked off his Hollywood career on a high note (with Citizen Kane), but went on steadily downhill from there on until the career low point of doing a voice-over for a lame Transformers animated movie.

First Shyamalan gave us hydrophobic aliens in Signs, then a “twist” ending we all saw coming a mile off with The Village and the less said about Lady in the Water, the better. So who could blame overreacting critics for treating Shyamalan like the proverbial Uwe Boll, even though all his movies actually had their good bits and is nowhere as bad as anything by the auteur of BloodRayne? In fact Shyamalan is a more like celluloid Stephen King than he is an Orson Welles. Sixth Sense is by no stretch of the imagination a Citizen Kane after all.

Like Stephen King, Shyamalan is quite good with build-up, but underwhelming when it comes to resolving his tales. Whereas Stephen King with his rep as “the world’s best-selling author” has frightened off wimpy editors who should cut down on his verbosity (but don’t), M. Night Shyamalan inhabits a cocoon bubble of his own. After all, he is now a true “auteur”, being credited as the sole writer, producer and director of The Happening. Like Stephen King needs an editor to cut down on his overlong prose (especially on his latest novels), Shyamalan needs a co-author to rein in his worst instincts. There is a very good movie hidden somewhere in The Happening, but Shyamalan needed someone to do another rewrite of his screenplay.

Critics hate Shyamalan’s movies because of their mix of the patently ridiculous, the over-earnest and (perhaps most frustratingly) the very good. We liked The Happening, but the movie suffers from all the same mistakes as his previous movies. We just believe that in The Happening the good elements actually outweigh the bad ones.

"A mix of the patently ridiculous, the over-earnest and (perhaps most frustratingly) the very good."

As you might know by now, The Happening has a kick-ass premise: one day people in New York’s Central Park start committing suicide for no apparent reason. Soon this wave of unexplained suicides spread across the city to the outlying regions. Frightened residents of nearby towns start fleeing the area. But what is causing this outbreak of mass suicides? Is it a terrorist attack? A biological warfare virus developed by the CIA that has escaped? And how do you escape something which is invisible and is probably spread though the air in any case?

The Happening follows a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg), his much-younger-looking wife (Zooey Deschanel), colleague and his eight-year-old daughter trying to escape the coming suicide virus. The Stephen King analogy is more than apt as one can easily have imagined the bespectacled one dreaming up The Happening (it in fact shares some ideas with King’s recent Cell novel).

Like many Stephen King novels though, The Happening is great with build-up, but the movie’s ending is too arbitrary and predictable to be truly satisfying. While on board for the ride, The Happening is great for the most part, but afterwards lots of minor plot holes come to mind. If it is an airborne virus that causes people to kill themselves in a specific area, just how did anyone manage to gather corpses for autopsies (as one news report implies)? Why isn’t anyone wearing face masks of some sort? It probably won’t help, but people in a panic usually would wear them in any case.

There are lots of other problems with The Happening as well. [WARNING SPOILERS! – Do not read any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet!] The explanation ultimately given for the mysterious happenings is that plants and trees have evolved and are giving off an invisible spore to kill off their natural enemy – namely man. We kinda dug this ecological Nature vs. Man angle. After all, if Nature had half a brain cell it would have tried to kill of humanity and its polluting SUVs and factories a long time ago! Anyone seen just what we are doing to this planet lately?

Shyamalan seems to have stepped off his religious soap box he occupied with Signs and taken up an ecological cause one. Shyamalan – Eco Warrior! All very fashionable . . .

But as an explanation to the events it is patently ridiculous no matter how many forced “scientific” dialogue he works into his screenplay. In fact The Happening is quite ham-fisted in this regard. We loved the J.G. Ballard-ish overtones of The Happening, but repeatedly forcing an explanation down the audiences’ throats for onscreen events is a mistake. Some unexplained phenomena should just remain that . . . unexplained. This is a lesson that every X-Files episode knew at heart. A more lingering sense of mystery would have served the material better. [END SPOILERS!]

Still, there is a lot to like in The Happening. Like Life Itself, Shyamalan’s movies are about the journey and not the destination. The ending is a disappointment because of its arbitrary nature, but at least it isn’t one of those forced “twist endings” of the director’s previous movies.

But don’t take our word for it. We here at the Sci-Fi Movie Page are just real suckers for End-of-the-World movies and probably liked recent post-apocalyptic movies such as Will Smith’s recent I Am Legend, The Mist (a much better movie than this one) and Cloverfield more than is socially acceptable to admit to. The Happening has a strong premise, and with Shyamalan’s neo-1970’s filmic approach the film comes across as a mix between Panic in the Year Zero, Roger Corman efforts such as The Last Woman on Earth, and a J.G. Ballard short story. It is high on brooding post-9/11 paranoid atmosphere, some haunting visuals (construction workers jumping off a tall building for instance) and a desolate sense of landscape. The humans may become lost in that landscape at times, but their dilemma is still involving.

So sorry if we don’t partake in any Shyamalan-bashing this time round. It’s always fun and we’ve had our fair share of it now to be honest. But it won’t be fair this time around.

Make no mistake though: The Happening is not a “comeback” movie for Shyamalan. Critics will tear it apart. One can already imagine the snooty “it should have called The Trees instead” comments. On exiting the cinema one excitable fellow critic huffed that the movie was “unforgivable”. No, sitting through the likes of Prisoners of the Lost Universe and Warriors of the Wasteland is unforgivable. The Happening is simply not as good as it could have been.

However if you like a good post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale as much as the rest of us, then you’d ignore all the critics and go see The Happening . . .



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