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The Happening

The Happening

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: The Hard Cut (9 min); I Hear You Whispering (9 min); A Day for Night (7min); Elements of a Scene (10 min); Visions of The Happening: A Making of of documentary (12min); Deleted scenes with introductions from M. Night Shyamalan; Gag reel.

M NIGHT Shyamalan certainly cannot be faulted for boldness when it comes to tackling new subjects. No two films have been the same, while every project aspires to an intelligence that’s often out of reach of most popcorn blockbusters.

But with his latest, The Happening, he has delivered his first real misfire courtesy of a flimsy, under-developed premise and an awkward tone that leaves audiences scared, or unsettled, one minute, and laughing – sometimes inadvertently so – the next. It’s an odd experience that never seems to maintain a consistency.

The film begins well, as people begin acting strangely in New York’s Central Park, before coming to a complete standstill momentarily, and taking a few steps backwards and using whatever they can to kill themselves. Moments later, workers on a construction site are forced to watch in horror as their colleagues throw themselves from the top of the building. It’s a genuinely unsettling experience with more than a few echoes of the bodies that plunged from the burning Twin Towers on 9/11.

From then onwards, we’re in the company of science teacher Elliott (Mark Wahlberg), his estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) as they flee the nearby city of Philadelphia and attempt to work out what’s happening.

But while there are pockets of tension and the underlying mystery continues to intrigue, the film gradually falls apart at the seams. The twist isn’t so much a twist as a cautionary what if scenario in which Mother Nature becomes man’s biggest threat. But quite why, or even what triggered such a strange happening is never really made clear.

To make matters worse, his cast doesn’t seem to know what’s really going on either with the performances bordering on the unintentionally hilarious at times. Wahlberg, especially, seems torn between exploring the emotional consequences of the serious subject matter and moments of comedy without ever leaving audiences certain of what was intended. Some of his reactions are laughably bad, others just plain bizarre. You wonder what Shyamalan asked of him.

Deschanel, meanwhile, appears continually dazed and confused and begins the film like a character waiting for something to happen, while Leguizamo successfully taps into the fear of the occasion but feels under-developed in terms of his feelings of resentment towards Alma.

Yet therein lies another of the film’s failings. By thrusting us straight into the action, Shyamalan seems to have abandoned characterisation, thereby depriving audiences of any real emotional investment. The sight of unknown people killing themselves is discomforting, yes, but judging from the reaction of some viewers, it’s also quite hilarious (particularly if they’re choosing to lie under lawnmowers to do so).

Coupled with Wahlberg’s awkward performance (his deadpan “oh no” greeting the realisation that a group of people have started shooting themselves over a hill), it lessens the film’s ability to genuinely shock and feels like Shyamalan may even be attempting to drop in some of his own parody before the real spoofing begins from other sources.

The environmental aspect, too, is B-movie kind of hokey to say the least. It’s plants and trees that pose the biggest threat, with the wind serving as their accomplice. But the sight of characters attempting to outrun the breeze is more silly than chilling.

Perhaps, though, the joke is ultimately on viewers. If Shyamalan is attempting to say something serious about the threat posed by the environment and audiences are merely laughing, then maybe Mother Nature will – eventually – have the last laugh. Maybe humanity’s ambivalence towards climate change will be its downfall. Regretably, The Happening lacks the clout to really make you sit up and care. As unnerving as its best moments are, they’re all too frequently undone by its overriding sense of clumsiness.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 90mins
UK DVD Release: November 3, 2008