Ever since the stunning twist writer/director M. Night Shyamalan dropped on audiences near the end of 1999′s The Sixth Sense, each of his new films has been greeted with anticipation of more great surprises. Unfortunately, Shyamalan has disappointed more often than not, and one has to believe that if he had never scored that blockbuster hit a decade ago, few of his newer projects, including The Happening, would have ever seen the light of day.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The film opens in Central Park in New York, where two women are sitting on a bench having an ordinary conversation. All of a sudden, screams ring out, and one of the women looks around to see that almost everyone in the park appears to be frozen in mid-step. Those that can move are committing suicide in gruesome ways. The scene shifts to a construction site where workers begin taking swan dives off a building, and then on to a traffic jam where a police officer shoots himself in the head as others line up to use his gun on themselves.
Next, we go to Pennsylvania where high school teachers, including Elliot Moore (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) are dismissed for the day with a warning from administrators about reports of terrorist attacks in New York City. The terror might spread to Pennsylvania, so all are encouraged to leave the area. Elliot immediately phones wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) while Julian rounds up daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and tries to get in touch with his own wife.
On the way out of town, the train they’re all riding in suddenly stops near a small town. They can’t go any further, the conductor says, because they’ve lost contact with everybody. So Elliot, Alma, Julian, and Jess try to hitch rides out of the area towards the west, which is supposed to be away from the problems. When Julian gets a call saying that his wife is stuck in Princeton, he leaves Jess in Elliot and Alma’s care so he can go find her. Shortly thereafter, everyone in his vehicle commits suicide.
The rest of the film then focuses on Elliot, Alma, and Jess’s attempts to keep moving away from the mysterious toxin that is causing people to take their own lives. Some people believe it might be a wind-borne agent, while others think plants and trees are altering their chemical makeup to stave off some deadly virus. In any case, the disaster ends just as suddenly as it started, and nobody has any real answers about what happened.
My Reaction: The first thing I noticed about The Happening was how utterly terrible the acting performances were. I mean, I don’t go into a Mark Wahlberg film expecting Academy Award quality, but he wasn’t the only one bringing the ham. It got so distracting that I had to pause my DVD so I could do a few quick Google searches about the film — and only then did I discover that Shyamalan intended The Happening to be a throwback to old B-movies with schlocky plots and acting. Once I realized that the bad performances were intentional, they became easier to take, and even a bit funny.
There was nothing redeeming about the plot, however, as Shyamalan failed to build up any kind of suspense at all, and then didn’t even bother rewarding viewers with any kind of payoff. I just didn’t think that rustling leaves and bushes were scary, nor did I even understand how the wind could have anything to do with the sudden suicides. Furthermore, I thought it was ridiculous whenever the characters tried to outrun or stay ahead of the wind. Um, yeah, how exactly are you supposed to do that??
And the non-ending was a disappointment as well. While I realize that not everything in real life has pat explanations or succinct answers, I do expect something in the way of explanation from a movie. So Shyamalan’s choice to go the “we’ll never know” route just felt like more of a cop-out than a real ending — though I guess it was a fitting way to wind up a rather dull film.
Overall, The Happening is pretty much par for the course as far as recent M. Night Shyamalan films go. There’s a lot of buildup towards absolutely nothing, leaving the viewer feeling like a sucker for having sat through the entire thing. I give this movie 1 star out of 5.