Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr., Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Alan Ruck, Victoria Clark
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating: R for violent and disturbing images
Running Time: 91
Date: 06/11/2008

The Happening (2008)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Bitter Roots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's fun for critics to bash M. Night Shyamalan, especially since he invites it. In his last film, Lady in the Water (2006), he ruthlessly slaughtered a film critic (Bob Balaban) while allowing his own character to live and become an important and life-changing author; he practically shouted, "Bring it!" But even so, I try to give him the benefit of a doubt. At best, he's a highly skilled genre director with some very effective films under his belt, including large chunks of his most reviled films The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water. That said, his new film The Happening, is the least of his films since his 1999 breakout hit The Sixth Sense.

The film opens as people in New York's Central Park begin acting weird, losing their place, hearing things, and then suddenly committing suicide. Mark Wahlberg stars as Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher who gets called away from class and told to evacuate. He joins his friend and colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). He also grabs his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), with whom he's just had a fight. They take a train, which suddenly shuts down in the middle of nowhere, so they hitch a ride with the owners of a plant nursery. They think it's the plants causing all the havoc. Plants can send out various odors and chemicals to defend themselves if they feel threatened. As with most Shyamalan movies, we wait for the twist, but, nope. That's about it. It's the plants.

The Happening is basically a junior version of sci-fi disaster films ranging from The War of the Worlds (1953) to last year's The Mist, with humans banding together, trying to figure out exactly what the threat is, and then trying to solve it. Shyamalan's catches are 1) that the plants target people in large groups and 2) the suicide factor. (We see several gruesome and creative methods.) In telling this familiar story, he even lets his usual visual schemes relax. Sure, the film looks good, but there's only one shot that seems like vintage Shyamalan: a car stops in the middle of an intersection, and the camera spins around and catches other cars arriving at the same point from all different directions. Inside the story's structure, the characters behave strangely and speak in odd tones, as if they were merely reciting dialogue at each other instead of conversing. At one point Alma announces, "I don't like to talk about my emotions." If that's true, then why does she say that? I initially thought that this was a technique that would pay off somehow, but it isn't; it's just bad writing. Moreover, the film brings up loads of other objects and ideas, and makes a point of referring to them again and again (hot dogs, a mood ring, etc.) and never pays them off.

Interestingly and coincidentally, I've been re-reading Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" comics from the 1980s. One of his stories has a vaguely similar plot, with a far more satisfying (and scientifically obvious) payoff. It's very odd that Shyamalan missed it. I wonder if he's become too concerned with the shape of his career and trying to please too many people -- or in the case of the critics -- trying to defend himself. He should get back to making movies that he actually wants to make, and hang what anyone else thinks.

DVD Details: Fox's DVD comes with five little featurettes (Shyamalan speaks!), about 12 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel and trailers. Also available on The Happening

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