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The Happening   D+

20th Century Fox / UTV Motion Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, Frank Collison, Ashlyn Sanchez, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr.

Review by Rob Vaux

Here's the problem in a nutshell: M. Night Shyamalan moves heaven and earth to create the scariest corridor in the spookiest haunted house in the world. Shadows throw strange and disturbing shapes on the wall, while the creak of every floorboard sends unseen things scuttling across the corners of our vision. We're drawn through the terrifying atmosphere by an irresistible fascination, for at the end of the corridor stands a door, and on the other side lies The Scariest Thing We Will Ever See. What is it? We have to open the door to find out. We inch forward with trembling hands, edging slowly closer. No matter how frightening it may be, it contains the answers to all the nightmares around us: the chilling knowledge that explains why our hearts are pounding so loudly, why our pulses have quickened so unbearably, and why our guts have clenched into such squirming knots. Through sheer force of will, we latch our hands on the doorknob, steeling ourselves for the inevitable gaze into the Gorgon's face beyond. Then with a shriek of hellish intensity, we wrench it open, revealing at last the manifestation of our deepest fears...

...and it's Big Bird.

But that's not the joke. The joke is that is even as we stand there yelling, "What the fuck?! It's Big Bird!" Shyamalan can't understand for the life of him why we're not scared anymore.

So it is with The Happening, another case of elegant filmmaking kneecapped by a thunderingly stupid concept. Like much of his work, it starts with a great hook designed to draw us further into a thoroughly intriguing mystery. To it, he adds a mood of surreal paranoia, aided by some fine work by DP Tak Fujimoto and an eye for detail second to none. In Central Park one morning, masses of people suddenly freeze in place before calmly finding ways to off themselves. The cause is unknown: it's like a switch has been turned in everyone's head. The placid, disinterested looks on their faces as they go about their final grisly task is enough to send chills down the most stoic spines, evoking the best elements of horror classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Shyamalan's impressive visual skills transform the basic idea into an array of stunning vignettes: construction workers tumbling en masse off the roof of a skyscraper, the hanged bodies of groundskeepers dangling like fruit from the trees they were just tending, and the ominous progress of a policeman's service pistol as it travels from one single-shot user to the next. Moments such as these suggest a master filmmaker at the peak of his ability, for not only do they linger hauntingly in the mind, but they create in us a burning desire to know what on earth could cause such behavior.

And that's where the trouble starts. For as eagerly as Shyamalan establishes his Great Whatsit, he hasn't thought through any of the logical particulars designed to get us the answers. The drama soon focuses on Philadelphia school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). Their marriage is having difficulties -- unveiled by Shyamalan's script in the most banal and perfunctory ways -- but that's not important. When school is dismissed following the strange "attack" in New York, they decide to flee the city before things get any worse. What follows is a briskly paced odyssey across the Pennsylvania countryside, as the Moores and their companions find themselves periodically menaced by the "happening" and struggling to figure out the cause before it does them in. Serious, serious plot holes crop up almost immediately. If the danger worked the way it really should, everyone would be dead and we'd have no movie. So The Happening hashes out some basic rules for survival which feel arbitrary and random, arrived at intuitively and ignoring a lot of inconvenient questions that would derail the whole shebang if we contemplated them too long. Shyamalan inserts occasional encounters with housebound lunatics in order to spice things up, as well as crude bits of poorly timed humor which undermine the very tension he's trying to create. Each of them causes further damage to both the narrative and our willingness to invest in its outcome, until neither of them can survive intact.

Then there's the big twist: the force behind all those mass suicides and the invisible enemy chasing the Moores so relentlessly. Publicity for The Happening trumpets the fact that it's not a real twist -- the answer comes early, with further details arriving in sputtering bursts thereafter. But that doesn't matter. For all intents and purposes, it's Big Bird: dumber than a box of rocks and bolstered by a few bits of dodgy science which still can't excuse the fact that -- no matter how eerily it's presented-- it's still not scary. At all. In fact, by investing it with so much pretentious gravitas beforehand, The Happening transforms its inherent silliness into a sad and infuriating joke. Any lingering good will towards the film's better elements (including a nice turn by John Leguizamo as Elliot's best friend) is retroactively dispelled, twisting its assets into a carnival hustle that rooks us of our money before leading us unceremoniously to the Grand Egress. You can use a lot of words for such tactics, but "good filmmaking" isn't one of them. Unfortunately, it's all Shyamalan seems capable of these days, though he clearly doesn't realize it and perhaps never will. To its credit, The Happening improves upon his execrable Lady in the Water, but only just, and then only long enough to remind us how utterly lost this once promising auteur has become.

Review published 06.14.2008.

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