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Shyamalan’s latest a Happening to be missed

by Glen Baity

Still waiting for M. Night Shyamalan to make another Sixth Sense? The Happening might finally break you of that habit. Shyamalanis, for good or ill, the only creator I know currently at work in themajor-studio system who retains sole writing, directing and productioncredits on each of his films. I respect his passion, but like so manyraging egos, what he obviously, painfully lacks – if his last few filmsare any indicator – is someone to help him separate the good ideas fromthe bad. (Since some still go to these films to be surprised, I’ll give a hearty SPOILER ALERT before moving forward.) Thedirector’s lack of impulse control is clear in his latest. TheHappening is a poorly-conceived cheater of a movie that treats itsaudience like a group of schoolchildren, which it first patronizes and,in due course, tortures and kills. The film chronicles a mysteriousepidemic that begins in Central Park on a mundane, partly cloudymorning. Large groups of people, quite out of the blue, becomedisoriented and begin sputtering gibberish. Within moments, they’recommitting suicide in public, usually in the most efficient andhorrifying ways possible. Plunging knitting needles into their necks.Driving their cars into trees. One man goes so far as to lay down undera commercial-grade lawn mower. In the middle of the chaos isour hero, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a high school science teacher whotries to understand the happening before it happens to everyone heloves. Wahlberg is one of those actors who shines brighter the betterthe material (Boogie Nights, Three Kings). The flipside: When he gets abad script (Rock Star) he’s practically unwatchable. It’s that Wahlbergwho shows up here, reading all his lines with a tone of abjectdisbelief, as if he can’t get over how stupid they are. Really, youcan’t blame him. Why is the happening happening? Many theoriesare floated, but the most popular seems to be: Plants, finally sick ofthe horrors man has perpetrated on the earth, are releasing aneurotoxin into the air to get rid of us walking plagues. No, really. That’s actually the premise. It’sup to Elliott to figure out how to avoid the toxin’s "hot spots." Hespends the film trying to puzzle out any sort of pattern: Does it goafter large groups? Can it pass through walls? Are you safer in thecity or the country? Indoors or outdoors? In a car or on foot? It’llbe hard to talk about why the film is such a failure without at leasthinting at the ending, so once again, stop reading if you don’t want toknow too much. The answer to how the toxin operates: It doeswhatever Shyamalan needs it to do in order to make a given scenesuspenseful. In one instance, it affects people in cities, because itwill be exciting for our characters to flee the city. Then it affectspeople in large groups, so our characters must split off from oneanother, which is dramatic, sort of. Then it starts killing people whowander off by themselves. Then, groups again. There is no pattern,which means plotting the film doesn’t take very much thought, andfrankly, it shows. The Happening is a 90-minute chase in which thepursuer can pop up anywhere, at any time, and do anything, without everonce appearing to the audience. But oh, the havoc it wreaks:The Happening is certainly the most graphic film Shyamalan has evermade – often pointlessly so – but it’s also his most visuallyarresting. For all his faults, he still shoots a scene beautifully, andthe images here – a sad parade of human bodies stepping off a ledge,photographed from street level, to name only the most memorable -aren’t easy to shake. But they often feel gratuitous, almost like he’sbullying his audience. Several supporting players, like in anybargain-basement slasher flick, are introduced only to be killedbrutally within 15 minutes. This feels, more than anything, likeShyamalan taking out a bad mood on the viewer. There isultimately no explanation for the events of the film which, I think, issupposed to be the point – sometimes, Shyamalan seems to be saying,things just occur. Science teacher Elliott, in a moment that blatantlytips the director’s hand early in the film, discourages his studentsfrom thinking too hard about possible solutions to a scientific riddle- after all, he says, their ideas might make them feel pretty good, butin the end they will be "just theories." This is echoed toward the endof the film by a stuffy scientist on a news show, who assures histelevision audience that nobody will ever know exactly what happenedand why, so we must all throw up our hands in unison and ceasedemanding specifics. It might go without saying, but: Scientists don’t actually think this way. Theseare two of any number of exchanges – all of them poorly staged,emotionally bereft and awkwardly acted – that reveal the film’s centralidea to be murky and inscrutable. The Happening amounts to a sequenceof nonsensical plot points strung together by the actions ofinconsistent, annoying characters. Naming each of them would take areview four times this length. Despite all that, I’ll giveShyamalan his due for provoking discussion. Having come dangerouslyclose to my word allotment, I still have plenty I’d like to say aboutThe Happening Almost all of it, however, would relate to howpretentious the film is, how cheaply it treats its audience, howinsulting it is to watch it wrap up with a parting gloat, as if it hasactually said anything of substance. In the end, you’ll be lessinterested in The Happening than the unsolved mystery of what happenedto the guy who made The Sixth Sense.

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