Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Spencer Breslin, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley. (2008, R, 91 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 20, 2008
It is now, officially, way past time some smart cookie over at the Sci Fi Channel gave Shyamalan his own weekly Twilight Zone knockoff. Call it Creepslow, or maybe Not-Quite-Night Gallery – whatever he wants – but for the sake of the moviegoing public and Shyamalan's legendarily oversized and underarmored ego, let the poor guy play Rod Serling for a season or two. Maybe then he'll learn the inestimable editorial and creative value of the half-hour television format when it comes to dishing out socially relevant yet ham-fisted morality tales like The Happening. Despite his ever more wiggy attempts to recapture the box-office sucker punch of The Sixth Sense, every Shyamalan film since 2000's underrated Unbreakable has smacked of increasingly formulaic filmmaking. Sadly, if unsurprisingly, The Happening continues the director's downward spiral. The film's apocalyptic, Mother Nature-in-revolt scenario feels like something Al Gore might've cooked up during a mescaline-fueled all-nighter spent reading Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well … billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting." Despite the director's ability to develop and maintain a queasy sort of escalating dread, The Happening ultimately never surpasses the timeless thrill of watching the grass grow and then mowing the hell out of it. Wahlberg, who has developed a genius for selling silly without seeming silly, plays Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher married to Alma (Deschanel), who, in an oddly meta-Serling twist, practically defines silly even when she is being really, really serious. When an unexplained phenomenon strikes the Eastern seaboard, causing everyone to walk backward and then kill themselves in a variety of nasty ways (death by lawn mower, anyone?), Wahlberg and friends (including a wasted and wasted-looking character played by Leguizamo) head for the hills. This being a Shyamalan creep-out, the hills are alive, and not with the sound of music, either. Sporadic contact with the real world via snatches of television and radio broadcasts (à la Night of the Living Dead) reveal that Homeland Security hasn't got a clue, but of course, that's one of Shyamalan's pet themes. As in Signs, civilization immediately grinds to a literal halt when contorted by the surreal, and it's up to science prof Elliot to posit the possibilities, if not stave off the inevitable. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto gets some eerie mileage out of the ominously verdant wilds of Pennsylvania, but, like Shyamalan's previous film, Lady in the Water, The Happening is both too incoherently weird and too narratively ambitious for its own good. This is how Shyamalan's world ends? Not with a bang, but with a whisper of wind on a sunny summer day.