Judging from “The Happening,” M. Night Shyamalan’s newest movie, and considering the theme in six of his previous films, this writer-director apparently spends a lot of time thinking about death. His early two Academy award nominations in 2006 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for “The Sixth Sense” created positive buzz about the filmmaker. However, with every additional movie ending up as a cookie-cutter with the same theme - be afraid of “something” - only with different icing, respect for Shyamalan’s storytelling is dwindling.
“The Happening” begins in Philadelphia where high school science teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) attempts to hold his students attention while talking about nature. News soon spreads that strange things are happening in New York City, where construction workers fall to their deaths, hitting the ground below with a thud. When people in Central Park stop talking, stop moving and some try to kill themselves or others, fear spreads like a gasoline fire.
Suspicions are bandied about by everyone in the area; the main one puts the blame on terrorists. In some rather cheap shots at reality, Shyamalan throws out a few similarities in the film to 9/11, which seems to be upsetting some moviegoers more than the ridiculous plot.
Eventually Elliott and all Philadelphians are told to flee the area. Although no one knows what’s causing the frightening ordeal, they know if they stay, their chance of survival is slim. Getting his wife Alma’s (Zooey Deschanel) agreement to go to the country isn’t easy, but Elliott doesn’t know her behavior may indicate she no longer wants to be with him.
Elliott, Alma, their friends and strangers are soon on a run for their lives. They cross paths with dead bodies on the road and learn to stay ahead of the wind because whatever “it” is, it’s in the wind. Not in the water as in Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water,” or threatening people who wear red like “it” did in “The Village,” or causing innocent deaths by train crash as in “Unbreakable,” or turning people who don’t die into aliens as in “Signs.”
Wahlberg half-heartedly attempts to make his role believable, but with an absurd script and worse dialogue, he’s fighting an uphill battle even ahead of the wind. There’s no chemistry between Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, who doesn’t give one minute of a believable performance here. The relationship between the characters these two portray is muddled from beginning to end. A scene where Elliott and Alma discover a country hermit (Betty Buckley) who becomes a Norman Bates (“Psycho”), didn’t make me afraid of this character, but afraid for this filmmaker’s survival in a world where moviegoers expect more than cheap thrills.
I’ve met Shyamalan several times and find him extremely pleasant and congenial. When I saw his first film, “Wide Awake,” in 1998, I really liked it. I don’t know why it was pulled from the theaters the day before opened, but I had high hopes for this young director with a strong vision.
Unfortunately, that expectation gets dashed at every pre-screening of any new film by Shyamalan, when critics attending can name every angle and many of the scenes that will be in the film before it starts. Evidently, Shyamalan wants to mesmerize viewers like Alfred Hitchcock did in his classic thrillers - and he even appears in at least one scene in all his movies, just like Hitchcock did. But unlike Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s movies continually fail to feature anything new or intelligent.
A first for a Shyamalan film, and one he wanted, is a rating of “R” for violent and disturbing images, the same reason as other horror films that attempt to build a story around violent graphics. I found nothing exciting about “The Happening,” and even the hokey ending is “not” happening. But for anyone who likes mindless films designed to spook the audience with wrestling trees, it’s at least cool inside.