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June 13, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | June 13, 2008 |

It’s safe to say at this point that M. Night Shyamalan’s increasingly weak storytelling has outstripped his inherent skill as a filmmaker. He’s always been a technically gifted director, able to manufacture an air of suspense and terror with nothing more than a well-composed close-up. He’s always been a master of mood, even as his scripts grew progressively clunkier, but with The Happening, he finally loses his way. In addition to featuring a weak plot, uninvolving characters, and a (by now typically) disappointing reason behind all the madness, Shyamalan’s film is almost completely devoid of tension and drama. Loud music cues and sudden pans aren’t enough to create suspense or horror, and after a while, they become annoying reminders that Shyamalan’s too involved in what he sees as a powerful story with a message to bother investing time in the characters and letting the audience connect with them.

The film opens in Central Park, in a moment that will eventually become representative of Shyamalan’s miscalculations about the story. Two women are sitting on a bench, chatting idly, when one of them hears a brief scream in the distance. She turns to look, unable to see the source, but then notices that the rest of the people walking past her have gradually come to a standstill, including her friend. The friend slowly pulls a long hair pin from her bun and drives it into her own neck. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, construction workers begin throwing themselves from a building to the understandable concern of the foreman. They aren’t terrible scenes, but they’re indicative of the problem Shyamalan never overcomes: He thinks the story itself is cooler than the people in it, and that makes him a cold, uncaring director. Rather than show these things happening to or near the as-yet-unseen heroes of the piece, or even after we’ve met them, Shyalaman opts to jump right into the mayhem. It’s only after these scenes that he shifts the action to Philadelphia, his hometown and the setting for most of his films.

Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a high school science teacher who tries to get his kids involved in the subject by being cool, but he isn’t having too much luck asking them for theories about a news report that bees have started disappearing from North America. Not even the apocryphal Albert Einstein quote about how man would only live for four years after the disappearance of honeybees has any real effect on them, but before the discussion gets old, Elliot’s called out of class by the vice principal for an emergency staff meeting. The teachers are told about the events in New York, which are being attributed to some kind of terrorist attack, so they close the schools as the city’s residents begin to get out of Dodge, hoping to avoid disaster by staying away from metropolitan areas. Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher, plans to head to his mother-in-law’s place and offers to put up Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), until the panic or whatever it is blows over.

From there, Shyamalan’s narrative follows Elliot, Alma, Julian, and Julian’s 8-year-old daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), as they and a horde of people trek into the country. At first they take a train, but the conductors stop in Filbert and kick everyone off because the spreading event — taking the form of more and more mass suicides through the northeastern United States — has made them lose contact “with everyone.” Why this means the train has to stop, Shyamalan never makes clear; he just needed a way to strand Elliot and Alma in the country, and this is it. The fleeing townsfolk decide to keep heading west into more rural areas, but Julian decides to make for Princeton, his wife’s last known location, leaving Jess in the care of Elliot and Alma. It’s another unbelievable turn, since Julian’s two-dimensional character sketch was of a fiercely overprotective father who also didn’t think Alma was right for Elliot, so there’s no way at all he would so easily consent to leaving his daughter behind, let alone come up with the idea on his own, but there it is.

As Elliot, Alma, Jess, and a few other survivors head off through the fields, Elliot and a local farmer collaborate on the cause of the virus that’s causing people to kill themselves. They come up with the idea that it’s coming from plants, trees, and grass, which have grown weary of being abused and polluted by mankind and have decided to fight back the only way possible: by rapidly adapting and evolving their chemistry and releasing a certain natural toxin that reverses a human’s self-preservation urge, turning into a desire to commit suicide. As such, The Happening is Shyamalan’s most direct film yet in that it neither hints at nor delivers some kind of shattering twist at the end that will realign the story and give it new depth; this is simply the way things are. Elliot’s working theory turns out to be true, so wherever large numbers of people are gathered, at least in New England, a wind sweeps through and unleashes the airborne toxin from plant life, causing the deaths of anyone nearby. Elliot’s only hope for survival is that he and Alma present such a small threat that they can stay ahead of the wind and avoid fatal self-mutilation.

Shyamalan also pulls some curious performances out of his two main characters, apparently coaching them to act steadily more repressed and unnatural in the face of mounting death and chaos. Weirdly, Wahlberg and Deschanel both speak in slightly higher registers than usual, with Wahlberg’s voice coming out in an earnest Dirk Diggler whine and Deschanel’s completely robbed of the gravelly alto that gives it character. They’re both talented actors, and they’re both completely wasted in roles that are nothing but placeholders that allow Shyamalan to chase someone through the woods one more time.

It’s not hard to see why it’s Shyamalan’s least thrilling script, though it’s his most graphic film to date. (One man lays down in front of a combine and lets himself get mowed to death, causing no small amount of spray.) His better films relied on the supernatural, like the horribly maimed ghosts of The Sixth Sense or the surprisingly chilling aliens of Signs. But by downshifting from super- to just plan old natural, Shyamalan loses his grip on suspense and comes up with only a mildly creepy message film: If you don’t recycle, Earth will eat you. Some of his earlier films had some genuine shocks — the dead bicycle rider standing calmly next to a car, an alien hand moving through a sewer grate — but after seeing them, it’s hard to get scared by trees blowing in the wind.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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