In the Hollywood variation on a classic proverb, whom the gods would destroy they first make successful. So it's been for writer director M. Night Shyamalan, where the breakout success of The Sixth Sense first suggested he could do no wrong and then his later films suggested, in dribs and drabs, that he in fact could. The minor missteps in the otherwise-watchable Unbreakable, Signs and The Village were one thing; eventually, Shyamalan's status as a unquestionable talent culminated in Lady in the Water, a textbook example of what can happen when a filmmaker becomes so used to proceeding without supervision that they go right off the steep cliffs of self-indulgence with a full head of steam.
However, it seemed that even M. Night knew this, and looked to be retrenching with The Happening, promising us R-rated chills and thrills and goosebumps. And after actually seeing The Happening, it has to be said that the film's a perfectly fine summertime chiller, one that avoids the excesses and errors in judgment that unmade Lady in the Water but also one without the vision and excellence of The Sixth Sense. It's not that The Happening is bad, as such -- although there are a few fairly off moments in it -- it's more that I found myself wishing, on more than one occasion, that Shyamalan could forget about plucking the audience's heartstrings and instead just keep going for the jugular. I wanted The Happening's tension at a higher pitch so that I wasn't puzzling over plot holes and questionable character decisions while actually sitting in the theater; The Happening simmers when you want it to boil, smolders when you want it to burn.
The Happening begins in Central Park, as a beautiful morning suddenly becomes a nightmare; people stop what they're doing, paralyzed, and then lash out at themselves in acts of brutal violence. The radio and TV hum and buzz with rumors and wild theories; is it a terrorist attack? Something worse? Miles away, in Philadelphia, science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is trying to get his charges interested in the mysteries of the natural world when he's told the school board is sending all students and teachers home as word of the Central Park event spreads; Elliot's fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) invites Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) to join him and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) at his mother's place out of town. Bags are swiftly packed; trains are caught as the tone of the TV news and radio bulletins and cell phone calls become more panicked. Because while Elliot was trying to get his kids to care about the mysteries of the natural world, the mysteries of the natural world have been taking an interest in us. ...
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. The suicides spread beyond Central Park, jumping from the cities to the suburbs to towns. And while these events are chilling (one sequence features a grim vision of a suicidal relay, a gun passing between the crazed like a baton between racers), they're also somewhat repetitive, and I curiously found myself wishing they were more violent; as it is, they're almost too tasteful to be truly terrifying. And, again, caught up in the curiously amoral mindset that a horror film can induce, I also couldn't help but second-guess the nature of Shyamalan's choices; by having the event induce suicidal behavior, we get some striking and terrible images, but I nonetheless thought that you can tell Shyamalan isn't a horror film maker but a thriller film maker, as a horror film maker -- someone with a real taste for the blood and guts of it -- would have had the event induce homicidal acts, not simply suicidal ones.
Still, Shyamalan crafts a somewhat chilling cautionary tale; it just might have been more chilling if he had been a little less cautious. Shyamalan's said part of his inspiration for The Happening was eco-horror movies like The Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers; at one point, as Elliot and Alma and a few other survivors run from a subdivision like Lot and his family fleeing Sodom, they pass a billboard advertising the manufactured, unnatural sprawl of McMansions with the headline "You Deserve This!" The problem with that moment isn't how or when it comes; the problem is there aren't more like it. Shyamalan's discreetly serving thin slices of cheese on a silver platter; a few shamelessly thick slabs of it dished up with glee might have given the film more flavor.
The film feels miscast as well; Wahlberg's not great at conveying tension, and Deschanel's given some fairly lumpy dialogue to spit out; still, that may be more Shyamalan's problem than hers. And the film's finale involves a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (a setting that feels curiously recycled from Signs) whose occupant (Betty Buckley) is a little crazier than she has to be. Disaster films have always given us moments suggesting that some of the survivors may be more dangerous than the bad thing that's happening, but Buckley feels a little too over-the-top, which sinks in when you realize that she's the only device Shyamalan could think of to inject a few more moments of suspense into the film. In fact, the final act seems entirely too short on surprises and long on longing, as Elliot and Alma discover that the prospect of the end times works as surprisingly effective couples therapy.
Newsweek once famously touted Shyamalan as "the new Spielberg"; I remember dismissing that bit of hyperbole and thinking "No, but he could be the next Rod Serling. ..." Like Serling, Shyamalan has an affection for (and facility with) big hooks, big ideas, and the contrast between ordinary lives and extraordinary events. Unlike Serling, Shyamalan thinks he's more an artist than a craftsman, and his insistence on trying to craft meaningful fables for us means that he can't just relax and tell us a fairly good spooky campfire tale.
The Happening works best when Shyamalan's giving us the tricks and stunts and dares of an abominable showman; when he stops trying to make us scared and starts trying to make us feel, the movie sputters and stalls. The Happening isn't a return to glory for M. Night Shyamalan, but it's certainly a step back towards quality, and that alone earns it a mildly warm welcome.