Dir: M Night Shyamalan. US. 2008. 90 mins.
The phenomenon that was M Night Shyamalan is further diminished by The Happening, a paranoia-fuelled disaster movie which will leave audiences scratching their heads. Less dramatically convincing than his previous efforts and lacking the heart-thumping momentum or stunning revelations you'd expect, it will disappoint even his most ardent fans, although Fox's clever marketing campaign which shrouds the nature of the film in mystery will ensure strong opening numbers across the globe.
The Happening is nevertheless more accessible than Shyamalan's last film Lady In The Water, the 2006 misfire which multiplied misgivings about his film-making formula that first arose after The Village. Essentially a chase movie meets end-of-the-world catastrophe film, it moves along at a fair pace and is digestible at only 90 minutes, with the always-engaging Mark Wahlberg doing his best in the underwritten lead role. It will likely perform along the same lines as The Village ($257m worldwide), although the R-rated film will be off screens fast as the summer blockbuster train offloads new big-ticket items from hitmakers like Pixar and Will Smith.
This time, a mysterious toxin has been emitted into the air which, when inhaled, removes the human instinct for self-preservation and causes millions of suicides across the North-East of the US. The film opens as the people bustling around Central Park one morning all come to a standstill, then moves to a building site a few blocks away where men start hurling themselves off the roof of a multi-storey building.
As news of the crisis emerges, fear is that the deaths are being caused by a terrorist attack, some chemical weapon or virus, although the threat this time is more ecological in nature. Philadelphia high school teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) is told to send his class home and he takes up his colleague Julian's (Leguizamo) invitation to hole up in his mother's house outside the city. Together with Elliot's wife Alma (Deschanel) and Julian's daughter Jess (Sanchez), they catch a train for the farmlands.
A romantic subplot involves an argument between Elliot and Alma over the fact that she had tiramisu with a colleague from work called Joey (played off camera by Shyamalan's voice) and possibly jeopardized the marriage.
The film starts promisingly. The suicide scenes are suitably eerie and Shyamalan comes up with numerous violent ways for man to take his own life - leaping off buildings, crashing cars into trees, slitting wrists, punching a hairpin into one's neck, shooting oneself in the head etc. Once the journey in the countryside begins, however, it loses its way. The dialogue is surprisingly stilted, the acting patchy and the pacing uneven. Spooky setpieces which might have worked in The Sixth Sense or Signs fall down here and the concluding section in which the three protagonists land at the farmhouse of a crazy old lady (Buckley) is plain silly.
Shyamalan gives no effective explanation as to why only the US Northeast is affected, nor another populous area hit in the film's coda. Nature is unpredictable, he keeps telling us, and we must accept its whims. The average cinemagoer might not agree with such laissez-faire reasoning.
Blinding Edge Pictures
20th Century Fox
UTV Motion Pictures
20th Century Fox
M Night Shyamalan
M Night Shyamalan
Director of photography
James Newton Howard
Robert Bailey Jr