The Happening Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Fox Home Entertainment
Release Date: October 7, 2008
The Happening is an unbelievably bad movie. When I say “unbelievably,” I mean it quite literally; as in I actually can’t believe how bad the movie was, especially in light of fairly positive reviews from some of my most respected sources when the film first hit theaters, such as Roger Ebert and, yes, Geeks of Doom. I can’t believe the depths of bad acting that generally solid actors like leads Mark Wahlberg and Zoey Deschanel can apparently sink to under M. Night Shyamalan‘s directing. And more than anything, I can’t believe major Hollywood studios are still bankrolling films by this continuously diminishing director.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit far. I should probably back off a little at this point and offer a confession: I haven’t seen a single M. Night Shyamalan movie in full since 1999’s The Sixth Sense (which I liked, but I was only in junior high when I saw it, so hell, who knows if I really liked it). Without trying to cast aspersions onto other reviewers, perhaps that’s part of the reason I was so astonished by how awful The Happening is. I haven’t become slowly more disillusioned with Shyamalan with each passing film, and I have yet to witness last summer’s apparently equally horrendous Lady in the Water. But whether it was a case of too-high expectations or something else entirely, the fact remains that The Happening left my mouth hanging open in a way that Shyamalan and crew likely didn’t intend.
Part of the problem with the movie is in its very core setup. The “enemy” in The Happening is frequently described as an unexplainable force of nature — something we can never hope to understand. While non-traditional, that initial setup of the viewer never being able to fully comprehend what’s happening could certainly work in a film like this. However, Shyamalan spends too much time trying to graft that lack of clarity onto a more standard thriller structure that demands solutions to problems. Protagonist Elliot Moore (played with an immature melancholy by the aforementioned Wahlberg) just happens to ask all the right questions and discover all the right answers. Despite being nothing more than a fairly dopey-sounding high school science teacher with a failing marriage, Elliot doles out unquestioned wisdom throughout the course of the film, eventually figuring out exactly what is happening (a scene-ending play on the title that Shyamalan uses way too often). At one point, Elliot asks another character, “Why are you giving me one useless piece of information at a time?” I can’t imagine how any viewers could watch that scene and not ask the same question of the script.
Let me use an example of another specific scene from the film that had every opportunity to be completely chilling. Elliot and his wife Alma are leading a small group of survivors through a field, while another larger group has gone in the opposite direction. Suddenly, Elliot’s group hears gunshots coming from the direction the other group went in. They realize the others are being killed and turn to Elliot for a command, but he merely stands there, mumbling and becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to explain what’s going on. Truly terrifying, right? Or it would have been, save for the fact that Alma spends the whole scene whining about how they can’t be “uninvolved observers” (thanks, heavy-handed reference to the audience!), Wahlberg somehow manages to make even his frustrated screams sound like badly-acted statements that turn into questions, and it ends in the climax of the film’s mystery. That is, as the scene finishes, Elliot figures out the answer to what’s going on simply by talking himself through it, thus deflating any emotional or psychological tension the scene (or the film) may have otherwise held.
Again, maybe I’m just being too harsh. It seems obvious through the acting, the script, and even the premise itself that Shyamalan was going for more of a B-movie homage. If this was indeed his goal, then it seems like his main mistake was trying to stuff too many serious elements and not enough camp into the film. Both the struggling marriage and the overt environmental message are shoved down viewers throats painfully in spite of the low-quality acting and insane situations that make them impossible to take seriously. Alma’s really going to choose the moment when they’re walking through a field with a little girl and a handful of survivors trying to escape death to admit to Elliot that she went out to dinner one time with some guy from work? And Elliot’s really going to be upset about that? And though Shyamalan may be right in his idea that we should fear what will happen if nature decides to fight back against humanity, he doesn’t have the fortitude to go any further in his theorizing; the attacks in The Happening begin and end without any reason or discernible meaning. That “force of nature we can never hope to understand” thing strikes again and robs the film of any lasting impressions.
The DVD release of The Happening contains a number of bonus features, including a batch of deleted scenes with intros from Shyamalan himself. While it’s interesting to hear the director describe his own film as “so hard to watch” (referring to an extended cut before he pulled the four scenes featured here), the additional sequences don’t really add much to the film besides a little more gore and a ridiculously long and clearly unnecessary scene where Elliot and Alma get into an argument. The DVD also has a number of “Making Of” featurettes, the most interesting of which explores how Shyamalan and Fox decided to go for an ‘R’ rating — a first for the suspense-loving director. Unfortunately, the additional breathing room provided by that rating is wasted on a film that only has a few flaccid scenes of blood and guts and even less to truly get the mind or heart racing.