Film Reviews

The Happening M. Night Shyamalan

Rating - 2/10

Nearly a decade ago, M. Night Shyamalan was the hottest young director in Hollywood. His third feature film The Sixth Sense was an overwhelming critical and commercial success raking in almost $300 million dollars in the United States alone. Mainstream media crowned him as the rightful heir to Alfred Hitchcock, as Shyamalan appeared destined to jostle alongside the likes of Wes Anderson, David Fincher, P.T Anderson and Quentin Tarantino as the major American auteurs of his era.

Almost ten years later, the luster upon Shyamalan's crown has become worn and rusted. His legions of admirers and supporters have now curtailed into an increasingly silent and dwindling band of apologists. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock have been replaced with parallels to Peter Bogdanovich: another American wunderkind whose incendiary initial promise rapidly fizzled and frittered away after early critical and commercial prosperity. Freefall, rather than decline, currently resonates as a chief journalistic description of Shyamalan's prolonged period of torpidity. His auteurist credentials in the Sarrisian mode could now most favorably be categorized as "Less Than Meets The Eye." 

Beginning with The Village (2004) and continuing with Lady in the Water (2006), Shyamalan's career descended into parody. No longer were his films viewed as cultural events, but rather as examples of directorial indulgence and negligence. Insulating himself from his increasingly vociferous critics, Shyamalan continued to expound his own mythology through book publications (The Man Who Heard Voices) and pseudo-documentary releases (The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan), as critics began to target his tissue-thin scripts, unconvicing direction and stagnant artistic growth. Shyamalan's latest offering, The Happening, is an attempt at re-birth; an action designed to correct previous imbalances and critical snipes. Unfortunately for M. Night, he is no Lazarus.

Set primarily in Shyamalan's now familiar Pennsylvanian confines, The Happening is a film that aims to be both a suspense thriller and a contemplative, thought-provoking analysis of contemporary ills. Yet, like its brethren The Village, The Happening quickly becomes an archetype of sterile, facile and frankly terrible filmmaking. Unlike Elliott Silverstein's 1967 counter-cultural caper comedy flick of the same name, Shyamalan's The Happening is not a groovy, anti-establishment experience, but rather an apocalyptic suspense thriller starring a woefully miscast Mark Wahlberg as Elliot Moore: a Philadelphia area high school science teacher whose life is altered by the arrival of a mysterious, invisible pandemic, which causes people to arbitrarily commit suicide.

Beginning in parks located across urban Northeastern metropolises such as New York and Philadelphia, the disease quickly filters to small towns and rural communities. Frightened and disorientated, Elliot travels alongside his estranged, doe-eyed wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a mathematics teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) into the heart of rural Pennsylvania in order to thwart the oncoming wrath. Upon concluding that the event is not an act of bioterrorism, Elliot begins to suppose the attacks are not manmade, but rather the product of an unknown natural force connected to the world's verdant plant life.

Designed as a horror-suspense film with an ecological angle, The Happening certainly has an interesting core premise. Nevertheless, Shyamalan postulates his idea in a framework that is neither effective, nor believable. Fear-inducing facts, statistics and conspiracy theories dot and penetrate numerous quotidian conversations in The Happening, yet the film prominently eschews rationalism in favour of the unexplainable. After all the film's lead character is a science teacher, who decries science as being inadequate and overly theoretical: a stance which loudly reverberates in Shyamalan's empty finale. Consequently, The Happening is a strangely moralistic film, albeit one which proposes the possibility of a retributive environment vindictively attacking humans for their negligence, yet fails to offer solutions for its prevention.

Unlike, aphoristic and sermonic "B" fare such as Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still or Gordon Douglas' Them!, Shyamalan's film works neither as a discourse on environmental abuses, nor as a enjoyable, buttery popcorn flick. Although cinematographer Tak Fujimoto does provide some beautiful, quasi-subversive images of seemingly bucolic natural landscapes rendered vengeful by human arrogance, Shyamalan fails to astutely present these images as anything but pictures of pastoral beauty. Despite having his characters routinely flee panic-stricken from tall grass fields and pseudo-toxic wind gusts, Shyamalan's overall presentation of this supposed hysteria appears muted, dull and safe; in part due to the director's farcical, scattershot application of a quasi-airborne disease, which remains confined to one geographical area and purportedly selects its targets by population size. 

Whereas The Village featured a remarkable performance by Adrien Brody, The Happening's anemic performances do not assist the film's qualmish effect. Mark Wahlberg is particularly horrendous, although he is given little serviceable and quality material to work with in Shyamalan's plodding script and wooden dialogue. Noted for her previously strong work in films such as Almost Famous and All The Real Girls, Zooey Deschanel effort as Wahlberg's disaffected wife is equally shoddy. Depressed and simplistic, Deschanel's character has the reticence of a Victorian era lobotomy patient, while Leguizamo's hyperactive mathematics teacher is another wasted performance. 

Marketed and hyped as Shyamalan's first foray into R-rated cinema, The Happening is unquestionably one of the most ridiculous and reprehensible films released in 2008.  A silly, unfocused and lazy mess, The Happening is a disaster in its construction, content and application. An absolute dud, the film elicits serious questions about the rapid immolation of Shyamalan's career and his increasingly lethargic approach. Is Shyamalan simply supremely overrated, or just creatively fatigued? As evidenced by this film and its two predecessors, it seems most likely that a career revival for Shyamalan simply ain't happening.