This appears to be a movie about an incident that occurs to a certain number of people across a particular region consisting of a few states.
If M. Night Shyamalan can give us what he clearly believes is an exciting and dramatic movie even though it’s full of people reacting to strange and unknowable terrors in the most banal and apathetic ways, then I can give you a review to match. So I will proceed to discuss the various activities of the filmmaker using a variety of methods by which you may notice that all feeling has been removed from said discussion.
Nah, I can’t do that. Cuz I’m pissed.
Maybe Shyamalan didn’t mean for The Happening to be exciting and dramatic: perhaps the writer-director intended the film to be an exercise in sucking all the life and emotion out of fictional characters. Because why else would any filmmaker put lines of dialogue into characters’ mouths that sound like this: “There appears to be an event happening.” Or this: “It’s all some weird event.” Or this: “There’s something happening in a few states.” Or (and this might be my anti-favorite), this: “We can’t just stay here as uninterested observers.”
The audience certainly are uninterested observers, alas. Though of course I recommend against becoming an observer in the first place.
Strange and unknowable terrors are indeed afoot on this spring day, first in New York, where people are behaving oddly and then lose all sense of not-wanting-to-kill-oneself. There’s some nod made toward biochemical technobabble here, something about, well, an event occurring in certain sections of the brain having to do with self-preservation, though it seems to me that there’s a world of difference between lacking a sense of self-preservation — which could result in, oh, suddenly taking up smoking or perhaps driving fast without wearing your seatbelt — and actually stabbing yourself in the neck with a knitting needle or jumping off a building. But this is a minor quibble on the grander scale of everything gone enormously freakin’ wrong here.
Shyamalan (Lady in the Water, The Village) gives us a group of folks in Philadelphia, his usual fictional stomping grounds, who learn that this event appears to be occurring and decide that the best thing to do is to escape the city before the event decides to occur itself in Philly. So we have Mark Wahlberg’s (We Own the Night, The Departed) Elliot and John Leguizamo’s (Love in the Time of Cholera, George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead) Julian, best pals and schoolteachers, and Elliot’s wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Bridge to Terabithia), and Julian’s young daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez: Crash), and they’re all heading out of the city, like everyone else is. Shyamalan manages to whip up about two minutes’ worth of effective drama in a scene on a commuter train packed with scared people: how news of more events occurring spreads among them, via frightened cellphone calls and such, works.
But that’s the only moment approaching real we get, as Elliot and Co. hit the road, trying to get out of the affected area, which appears to cover those aforementioned “few states.” The movie has more than run out of steam by the half-hour mark — which suggests that it might have made for a decent episode of The Twilight Zone, but even a 80-some-odd minute movie is dragging it out beyond all hope of making it work. Elliot, a science teacher, has an idea what might be causing the event, and as preposterous and as outta-nowhere as it is within the context of the story, it’s even worse from Shyamalan’s perspective as the writer, because he has so little idea of what to do with this scenario that, in the end, he decides that it should turn out that Elliot was right from the get-go, and that something else Elliot said in his very first scene — about something else being “an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it” — would suffice to “explain” everything. But hey, it’s your job, Shyamalan, as teller of this story, to explain, even if the explanation is merely helping us to appreciate that some things can’t ever be explained. This hodgepodge of stilted dialogue and lifeless characters doing things that are ridiculous is not the way to do that.
“Let’s just stay ahead of the wind,” Elliot suggests at one point, as a way for the event not to catch up to them. Stay ahead of the wind? While they’re at it, they could jump between sunbeams too.
You want a Shyamalan twist ending? How’s this: The Happening is one big joke on us. It’s a put-on. It’s Shyamalan deliberately pulling our collective leg. Because this level of terrible could only be calculated. Unless there’s an event happening in Shyamalan’s brain, too.