This review was originally published at TwitchFilm.com, now known as ScreenAnarchy.com, on the opening date of THE HAPPENING, June 13, 2008. The film has since gone on to be considered one of the great cinematic “notorious turkeys” of modern times. Therefore, in conjunction with our most recent “Film Admissions” group piece on just such films. Enjoy! And beware of the wind…!
DIRECTED BY M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN/2008
“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear…”
Buffalo Springfield may’ve been singing that line in regard to the turbulent youth protest movement in late 1960s America, but it applies just as readily to M. Night Shyamalan’s new horror film starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. A lot isn’t clear about this film, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Shyamalan’s trademark twist ending has been replaced with a non-ending, the final capper on a meandering film that ultimately adds up to nothing. I’m all for an ambiguous horror film when the ambiguity works to evoke dread in the audience, but in this case, there are just too many other distracting things wrong with the movie. For the once formidable Shyamalan, this is, by most accounts, his third bad movie in a row. Something is happening with his career, that much IS clear.
Whoever thought the ordinarily edgy Mark Wahlberg would make a good milquetoast high school science teacher has a lot to rethink.
This is the story of a young married couple trying to outrun an airborne phenomenon that is turning the human race into suicide machines. Basically, something is causing people to stop doing whatever they’re doing, then lapse into a zombie-like state as they then proceed to kill themselves at the first opportunity. Is it a terrorist attack? Is it an environmental disaster? Has the air itself turned against mankind? What is happening?? No one knows, and Wahlberg’s character’s occupation as a high school science teacher only benefits in the slightest of ways. Theories are put forth, and “rules” for survival are bandied about, (Smaller groups of people are less susceptible than larger groups! Outside air is deadlier than indoor air!) but once any given theory or rule is seemingly established, it is contradicted. Thus is the frustrating unfolding of this tale, as it builds to Shyamalan’s ultimate point about the unpredictability of nature. The point is crystal clear by the end, thank you very much, and as interesting as the idea itself may be, this end does not justify the journey. Not by a long shot.
Around the time of Signs, M. Night Shyamalan stated his personal goal of achieving top tier directorial name recognition among the mass culture. Well, he got his wish. He’s become a brand, ala Spielberg, or Hitchcock, where the mere mention of his name evokes a particular, unique type of film aesthetic. As egocentric as this desire sounded in 2002, I didn’t mind if it meant a steady stream of atmospheric suspense films that maintained the tremendous quality of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The problem has been that starting with 2004’s misfire The Village, the man’s ego has outweighed his vision in a major way. Shyamalan’s winning formula, up to that point, had been to take a well-worn film genre, strip away the tired clichés, and focus exclusively on a single family, with very real problems, amid whatever the genre challenges are – ghosts, super powers, aliens, what have you. As of this latest film, it certainly looks as though the filmmaker’s household name brand status has clouded his ability to make good movies. And that is truly sad.
With each film, Shyamalan likes to draw inspiration from a different stable of worthwhile films, going as far as to hang the posters in his office for inspiration throughout production. For this film, my guess is he might’ve been looking at the earlier work of George Romero, as there is a lingering bleakness coupled with subtle social and political exploration. The problem is that Shyamalan falls short on both counts, as the bleakness is never manifested in any circumstances of true horror for our main cast. They are spared time and again. Why? We never know. Unlike Romero, Shyamalan falls into the trap of loving his characters too much to ever really, truly put them through the wringer. Why he so carefully guards these one-note dullards, I don’t understand, but he nonetheless does. In the case of Romero, his unlikable characters are often mere foils in his true goal of using the horror genre to blatantly explore social and political issues. For the first time, Shyamalan seems interested in broadening his scope beyond a small set of core characters, as he is clearly dabbling in the realm of World Issues here. Visual and verbal references to hot button topics such as terrorism and environmental change are tossed off but never delved into. Whereas Romero is often faulted for using a narrative sledgehammer when it comes to pounding home his political points, I’ll take that any day over this kind of lily-livered forced subtly.
One of the most immediately obvious flaws with The Happening is the casting of the lead characters. Whoever thought the ordinarily edgy Mark Wahlberg would make a good milquetoast high school science teacher has a lot to rethink. When Wahlberg tries to sell us on his scientific knowledge, it’s strained at best, and when he tries to be light and funny, it’s all-around painful. Shyamalan would’ve done better to switch this role with the part of co-star John Leguizamo, who certainly could’ve handled this character, such as it is, infinitely better. Zooey Deschanel is cringingly quirky in her thankless role as the wife in an only slightly strained marriage. All of these actors are above this material, and deserve better. Hopefully Shyamalan, who is also the writer and producer of this film, realizes this, and future projects won’t suffer in this same manner. Sometimes conforming elements of a screenplay to better suite the talent is not a bad thing.
Finally, here in the U.S., The Happening is being aggressively marketed as “M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie”. This angle is weird for numerous reasons, particularly that R-rated films typically earn less money than PG-13 and under films, since fewer people can see them, so why spotlight this aspect? In any case, this has to be the most PG-rated “R” picture I’ve ever seen, as it has no vulgar language or sex of any kind – only a few instances of gory deaths. These deaths all lack teeth, and don’t resonate in any way. The average episode of CSI probably has more bloodletting than this.
All of this sadly adds up to one of the least happening films of the summer. And that’s exactly clear.