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.

Shyamalan is, for good or ill, the only creator I know currently at work in the major-studio system who retains sole writing, directing and production credits on each of his films. I respect his passion, but like so many raging egos, what he obviously, painfully lacks – if his last few films are any indicator – is someone to help him separate the good ideas from the bad.

(Since some still go to these films to be surprised, I’ll give a hearty SPOILER ALERT before moving forward.)

The director’s lack of impulse control is clear in his latest. The Happening is a poorly-conceived cheater of a movie that treats its audience like a group of schoolchildren, which it first patronizes and, in due course, tortures and kills. The film chronicles a mysterious epidemic that begins in Central Park on a mundane, partly cloudy morning. Large groups of people, quite out of the blue, become disoriented and begin sputtering gibberish. Within moments, they’re committing suicide in public, usually in the most efficient and horrifying ways possible. Plunging knitting needles into their necks. Driving their cars into trees. One man goes so far as to lay down under a commercial-grade lawn mower.

In the middle of the chaos is our hero, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a high school science teacher who tries to understand the happening before it happens to everyone he loves. Wahlberg is one of those actors who shines brighter the better the material (Boogie Nights, Three Kings). The flipside: When he gets a bad script (Rock Star) he’s practically unwatchable. It’s that Wahlberg who shows up here, reading all his lines with a tone of abject disbelief, as if he can’t get over how stupid they are. Really, you can’t blame him.

Why is the happening happening? Many theories are floated, but the most popular seems to be: Plants, finally sick of the horrors man has perpetrated on the earth, are releasing a neurotoxin into the air to get rid of us walking plagues.

No, really. That’s actually the premise.

It’s up to Elliott to figure out how to avoid the toxin’s “hot spots.” He spends the film trying to puzzle out any sort of pattern: Does it go after large groups? Can it pass through walls? Are you safer in the city or the country? Indoors or outdoors? In a car or on foot?

It’ll be hard to talk about why the film is such a failure without at least hinting at the ending, so once again, stop reading if you don’t want to know too much.

The answer to how the toxin operates: It does whatever Shyamalan needs it to do in order to make a given scene suspenseful. In one instance, it affects people in cities, because it will be exciting for our characters to flee the city. Then it affects people in large groups, so our characters must split off from one another, which is dramatic, sort of. Then it starts killing people who wander off by themselves. Then, groups again. There is no pattern, which means plotting the film doesn’t take very much thought, and frankly, it shows. The Happening is a 90-minute chase in which the pursuer can pop up anywhere, at any time, and do anything, without ever once appearing to the audience.

But oh, the havoc it wreaks: The Happening is certainly the most graphic film Shyamalan has ever made – often pointlessly so – but it’s also his most visually arresting. For all his faults, he still shoots a scene beautifully, and the 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’s bullying his audience. Several supporting players, like in any bargain-basement slasher flick, are introduced only to be killed brutally within 15 minutes. This feels, more than anything, like Shyamalan taking out a bad mood on the viewer.

There is ultimately no explanation for the events of the film which, I think, is supposed to be the point – sometimes, Shyamalan seems to be saying, things just occur. Science teacher Elliott, in a moment that blatantly tips the director’s hand early in the film, discourages his students from thinking too hard about possible solutions to a scientific riddle – after all, he says, their ideas might make them feel pretty good, but in the end they will be “just theories.” This is echoed toward the end of the film by a stuffy scientist on a news show, who assures his television audience that nobody will ever know exactly what happened and why, so we must all throw up our hands in unison and cease demanding specifics.

It might go without saying, but: Scientists don’t actually think this way.

These are two of any number of exchanges – all of them poorly staged, emotionally bereft and awkwardly acted – that reveal the film’s central idea to be murky and inscrutable. The Happening amounts to a sequence of nonsensical plot points strung together by the actions of inconsistent, annoying characters. Naming each of them would take a review four times this length.

Despite all that, I’ll give Shyamalan his due for provoking discussion. Having come dangerously close to my word allotment, I still have plenty I’d like to say about The Happening Almost all of it, however, would relate to how pretentious the film is, how cheaply it treats its audience, how insulting it is to watch it wrap up with a parting gloat, as if it has actually said anything of substance. In the end, you’ll be less interested in The Happening than the unsolved mystery of what happened to the guy who made The Sixth Sense.

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