M Night Shyamalan might have come a long way since The Sixth Sense frightened the tar out of us back in 1999, but it’s been steadily downhill. Signs was a misfire, The Village a mess and Lady in the Water an abomination. His star has fallen so far that his latest film, The Happening, almost didn’t happen at all. The script was rejected by his usual backers, with the writer/director eventually finding the funds to make the film from an Indian conglomerate more used to producing Bollywood musicals.
Whatever the film’s genesis, in keeping with the director’s Hitchcock-aping affinity for narrative contortion, it would be unfair on any prospective audience to reveal too much about the story. In short, New York is subjected to a suspected terrorist attack, where suddenly and for no apparent reason, a deadly toxin is released into the atmosphere, which causes people to kill themselves. Soon, this strange phenomenon spreads throughout the North-Eastern United States causing everyone to flee in panic, although they are unsure what they are fleeing from. After an opening credit sequence of gradually darkening clouds and a quick introduction to the mayhem, the film settles on Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a high-school science teacher and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) as they escape the city for the supposed safety of Philadelphia, trying to figure out the mystery and find refuge in the remote countryside.
Judging by his jaunty line-readings and ludicrously befuddled expression, Wahlberg appears to be under the impression that he is in a comedy about a whiney, passive-aggressive child-man struggling to complete a particularly tricky crossword. He is just awful, unable to muster an iota of threat or panic, constantly checking the colouration on his “emotionally significant” mood ring – yes, mood ring – for guidance on how to arrange his face. Blue is happy, red is sad, purple is, honest to God, horny. So good in Boogie Nights and The Departed, Wahlberg can do nothing right here, and it’s entirely the fault of his director. Beside him, Deschanel plays the dutiful wife as if heavily medicated, unable to rouse herself from a dippy-eyed, half-smiling trace even as she flees for her life. Dependably cute and disarmingly pretty she is comprehensively wasted here but she is not alone.
Alan Ruck is given a momentary cameo as a grave faced school principal. Spencer Breslin remains anonymous from under a mop of curls. John Leguizamo appears as best friend Julian, mangles his cloth-eared dialogue for twenty minutes then disappears once his assigned task – placing his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) in the couple’s care – is completed. In an attempt to add some tension between them, unnecessary given the apocalyptic circumstances, Shyamalan introduces an undercurrent of emotional adultery (even playing the part of the other man, thankfully only on the phone), but this is just another mishandled, tedious element of what quickly descends into a litany of bad ideas, unintentional jokes and logical hiccups.
The Happening is truly a terrible film, a stupid premise poorly executed and, even at a scant 90 minutes, an ire-raising waste of time. For a film that revels in showing various inventive ways to commit suicide, makes umpteen po-faced and misinformed speeches about climate change and repeatedly evokes the spectre of terrorism and the ghosts of 9/11, Shyamalan’s childish character construction and inane dialogue is startlingly wrong-headed. Emotionally false, torturously contrived and dramatically rushed, this is a mindless, mirthless assemblage of reheated cliché, cod Hollywood science and half-hearted doom-mongering. But hey, it’s just another pompous, self-important dud from the diminished Shyamalan. It’s not the end of the world.