THE HAPPENING (2008)
So many of the movies released in a year are disposable, forgettable entertainments that seek to linger in the memory only until the threshold is passed beneath the EXIT sign, and the light of day, or a night of sleep, all but wipes them away. The Happening is one of these.
Actually, I misspeak. This is not a film whose sole aim is merely to entertain and then evaporate. Its goals are in fact much loftier: change in policy, change in behavior, change in attitude regarding humanity's effect on the environment. In spite of this - perhaps, in part, because of it - The Happening manages still to excel only in mediocrity.
In brief, the film deals with a seemingly airborne toxin in the northeastern United States, from New York to Philadelphia, that renders its victims at first incoherent, then suicidal. Amid this crisis, a married couple (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) attempts to escape the area under attack, meeting up along the way with various characters both helpful and hostile. Without giving away what the film ultimately suggests as the source of the threat, let it be said that this marks the theatrical debut of what is apparently a growing genre known as Green Horror. That is to say, horror films in which the threat is environmental, and specifically caused by the negligent actions of man (so... was Godzilla a Green Horror film?). Up to now, films of this genre have been relegated solely to the shelves at Best Buy. Which is not a slam, simply a fact. But that's precisely where one would expect to find The Happening, sitting alongside other straight-to-DVD horror films, waiting to be rented on a Sunday night, or Tivo'd off the Sci-Fi Channel.
It's not a bad film, certainly not as bad as many have made it out to be. What will doubtless pain fans of the film's director, M. Night Shyamalan, is simply how the man who made the largely undisputed masterpiece The Sixth Sense and then a series of films that, for any of their flaws, have fans both fierce and devoted (my favorite among these being Signs, which continues to scare me and move me no matter how many times I see it) could follow a largely undisputed turkey (Lady in the Water) with a film so, well, meh.
Even at their worst (Lady in the Water) Shyamalan's films have always been well made, master classes in deliberate pacing and elegant filmmaking that earned him the right to be held among the greats of our time. He's been compared to Spielberg, and for good reason. The man takes risks, stages entire scenes in one long shot and then doesn't cover his ass with additional setups. He directs his actors, even in incredible situations, with realism and sobriety.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Happening is that much of what we had perceived to be Shyamalan's unique style is missing. From Scene 1 the acting suggests someone else at the wheel. Surely, one thinks while watching, the man who discovered Haley Joel Osment and reminded us what a good actor Bruce Willis can be, surely that man did not intend for Mark Wahlberg to go through this entire film speaking in falsetto? Surely that director did not intend for the man who gives Wahlberg and Deschanel a ride - and spends much of his screen time either explaining the film's treatise or extolling the virtues of hot dogs - to look and act like Jim Henson's mentally challenged half-brother?
I recall Chris Carter, I believe, creator of The X-Files, talking in an interview about the importance of extremes in drama. Whether your characters could realistically afford it or not, he said, you should dress them in Armani. If you're going for drama, go for high drama. The greatest stakes, the greatest emotional conflict. At the heart of The Happening is the idea that there is conflict in our heroes' marriage, that she has been cheating on him with someone else. And yet it's revealed the infidelity was dessert, nothing more. And when this revelation is made, the only human conflict in the film apart from the overarching threat of the film becomes meaningless. There was no threat to their marriage, things are okay. A better script, I suspect, would have made the infidelity real, and subsequently made the threat to their marriage as real as the threat from the toxin.
There is one shot and one shot alone that reminds the viewer of the skills Shyamalan could have brought to the table were his heart really in this: a police officer shoots himself in the head, the gun falls to the street. A man exits his car, picks up the gun, shoots himself, drops the gun. A woman steps from the sidewalk, picks up the gun just as the stream of blood from the man before her trickles into frame, and shoots herself - and us - into the next scene. This is all done as one shot, and is so perfectly staged and timed that one believes for a moment he is in the presence of a better film.
Fans of Shyamalan's work may find something to like here. As might fans of the recent Nicole Kidman Body Snatchers remake The Invasion. In terms of both tone and quality, that film and this one are nearly identical, the advantage going to Invasion for some pretty good editing, and an interesting narrative structure.
Again, not a bad film to watch should it play on HBO. Were its goals not quite so grand, it would be a fun little thriller. But for what it seeks to accomplish, The Happening succeeds only in inducing the unfortunate eye roll, and then a silly laugh once people resume feeding their arms to lions. I recommend revisiting The Sixth Sense instead.