The Happening (2008)
Oh, M. Night Shyamalan, where did it all go wrong? Audiences and critics alike were almost entirely unified in their praise for The Sixth Sense (and deservedly so) but ever since you’ve continued to divide opinion with every new film you release…until this one. And, unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way.
After large groups of people bizarrely and without reason commit suicide in New York’s Time Square, a mass evacuation is called from the city. In the resulting pandemonium, The Happening follows the story of Elliot Moore, a high school teacher from Philadelphia who, along with a ragtag group of people (including his wife, Alma) flees into the countryside after the suicide virus spreads to Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.
I wish there were more I could talk about, plot-wise; but sadly that’s basically it…the remaining hour of the film consists entirely of said group running away. Alright, they may be running from one house to the next, but at the heart of it they’re still just running.
In the time prior to its release Shyamalan tried to market his film as a B-movie homage, and if I’m honest I can sort of understand where he was coming from, but the trouble is it all seems to be handled so ineptly. It’s a great concept at its core, but for a horror movie it seems to be missing a hell of a lot of the horror.
The majority of the film handles rather like a ridiculously extended chase sequence. Taking Shyamalan’s comparison into consideration, I wouldn’t have necessarily had a problem with this; B-movies are known for their lengthy chase scenes. However, The Happening is missing an important ingredient in its chase scene(s); and that is something to run from. Of course, this may not be a bad thing; provided there is enough tension to hold the audience in thrall, if handled correctly, I’m sure a chase sequence sans visible antagonist is entirely plausible. But the thing about The Happening is that there’s hardly any tension whatsoever; most of the chases are set in broad daylight in wide open spaces. There is nothing tangible in this film for the characters to be running away from, and as such it seems to largely consist of shots of Mark Wahlberg et al galumphing across fields.
All this would be bearable if the film had an intriguing storyline and script, and some decent acting. But for some unfathomable reason everyone comes across as very wooden; even the gorgeous Zooey Deschanel, who usually manages to inject warmth and charisma into everything she’s in, seems starkly amateur. And as for the story…well let’s just say that for a director renowned for his intelligent twists, this film would have been an awfully good time to use one. A theory about the cause of the mass suicides is brought to light at the start of the film and continues to be thrown about all through the middle. So it comes as no bloody surprise to anybody when it turns out that this hypothesis was correct all along.
What makes it all the more disappointing is that The Happening actually started off rather intriguingly. Shyamalan creates some amazingly creepy moments with the scenes of suicide – a mass hanging being a particular highlight – but the whole thing ends up feeling rather pointless. Mind you, I should have realised what I was getting myself in for when, about ten minutes into the film, I heard Wahlberg utter the line “Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it’ll be just a theory. I mean, we will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding”. He might as well have turned to the camera and dropped the audience a wink, for God’s sake.