An Early Review of M. Night Shyamalan’s THE HAPPENING

     May 15, 2008

Steve here. Frosty. Whatever you want to call me. Someone I know managed to see M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie “The Happening” and has sent in a review. And as a fan of M. Night’s, it pains me to report he didn’t like the movie.

I really wanted “The Happening” to be a return to form as I love “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”. While many of you didn’t like “The Village,” and a lot of people were unhappy with “Signs,” I actually like both of them. Granted, “The Village” isn’t a perfect film, but I like it. Sue me.

However, like all of you, I hated “Lady in the Water.” It’s not just bad…it’s terrible. It’s the only film in his catalogue I can’t stand and I think it’s a huge mess of a film. That being said, I figured he’d learned his lesson and was sharpening his knives for an assault this summer on audiences with his new movie “The Happening.” But after reading what was sent in, I’m scared he’s come off the rails and M. Night needs a serious intervention.

Also, just so you don’t think this is the only person who feels this way, I made acalland someone else told me pretty much the same thing that’s written below. The film doesn’t work. And as a fan of M. Night that only wishes him success, it really sucks to report this news.

With the release a month away, perhaps things are going to change…but if they don’t….this could be another mistake for someone I consider to be a very talented filmmaker.

Hey Steve, since I haven’t seen reviews anywhere yet, thought you might be interested in my thoughts on M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”.

A little background: I’m one of the many that were blown away by “The Sixth Sense” back in 1999. Shyamalan’s work on-screen was stylish and beautiful and was a grand return to elegant horror after the wave of cynical “Scream” imitators. I can remember sitting in a theater – before the word got out – and being hit by the twist in exactly the right way. What’s more, the film isn’t just its twist and repeated viewings have only made me admire “The Sixth Sense” all the more.

Two years later, “Unbreakable” hit and I thought it was a near-perfect follow-up. It was similarly toned without being redundant and carried a twist that validated rather than explained. If you go into “Sixth Sense” knowing there’s a twist, you may very well figure it out. In “Unbreakable”, the twist makes sense but there’s very little foreshadowing of it or other “of course!” moments in repeat viewings.

“Signs” was ultimately my first experience with Shyamalan let-down, though I’ll admit that he had set his own bar pretty high. I think there are moments of genius to “Signs” but, while I’ve grown to like it more and more, the ending is so illogical and downright silly that it ruins the movie. For the first time, the “twist” (and I hesitate to call it that; it’s not, really) felt forced. Couple that with the first case of Shyamalan casting himself in a role that he shouldn’t and I left the theater thinking that he made his first sub-par film but not really losing any respect for him as an artist.

And then “The Village” came along and had so much incredible promise that the letdown was almost tangible. Performances (from proven actors) fell apart on-screen and the twist was so tacked-on for twists’ sake that the director literally had to sit down in front of the camera and explain it to the audience. At a time when Shyamalan was already starting to be mocked for his one-trick-ponyism, he offered up the silliest parody of himself he could. Why couldn’t he just have made a movie about monsters in the woods? Who wouldn’t have preferred that?

“Lady in the Water”, though, felt like Shyamalan had hit rock bottom. He publicly decried Disney for not wanting his script and proceeded to make what very well be the most ego-centric film ever made. I’ve since become fascinated with the sheer audacity of “Lady” but that’s a far, far cry from calling it a good film.

A year or so ago, the script for “The Happening” (then titled “The Green Effect”) came across my desk and, while it inspired a mixed reaction, I really thought it was step up from both “The Village” and “Lady in the Water” and more in-tone with “Signs”. A straight-forward disaster epic on a human scale, “The Happening” seemed to be, from the script, exactly what Shyamalan needed to win back an audience and redeem himself. And on the positive side, I thought he couldn’t get much worse.

I was wrong.

“The Happening” is a terrible, terrible movie. I mean, it’s bad on an epic scale. It’s so bad that I can’t possibly tell you how bad it is without understating the point or making it sound like I’m picking on the film. But let me stress: this is not pent-up Shyamalan aggression or a desire to see him fail. This is bad in a jaw-dropping “they can’t really be serious, can they?” kind of way. The closest comparison I can draw is to Neil LaBute’s “Wicker Man” and, like that film, the only consolation I can offer potential theater-goers is that you might want to see it just to be in on the ground floor when the film gets its ass handed back to it.

I can also throw out that I’m not certain if the version I saw was the final version. It certainly felt rough but compared pretty dead-on with what I remembered from the script. The score, certainly, was missing and while that can really work wonders in the final form, I can’t imagine it coming close to saving “The Happening”.

The story is relatively simple and I don’t want to venture too far into spoiler territory. Picture “The Birds” without any birds, and that should give you a good idea of what Shyamalan seems to be going for. Suddenly and for seemingly no reason a neuro-toxin is released in the Northeastern United States that causes people to murder themselves in terrible ways. The effect sweeps through different towns and everyone races to escape, unsure of what’s really going on. The lead, Mark Wahlberg, is a schoolteacher who is on the outs with wife Zooey Deschanel. They flee together with a few other strangers and try to figure out what has caused the deadly outbreak.

The most obvious fault in “The Happening” is the acting — in particular Wahlberg’s performance. I’m saying this with no hyperbole, but Wahlberg might very well give the worst performance I’ve ever seen in anything. He’s that bad. His character is a passive aggressive high-school teacher and each line in delivered with nasally whines that sound like some strange parody. As bad as the rest of the movie is, Wahlberg is the part that the internet is going to eat alive.But is it really his fault? Wahlberg’s proven himself with “I (Heart) Huckabees” and his amazing turn in “The Departed”. I can’t help but feel that Shyamalan — intentionally or otherwise — is ultimately to blame for forcing some truly awful line readings.

The rest of the cast is passable but nothing special. Zooey Deschanel is extremely cute but never really does anything that matters. She’s very similar to a lot of female Shyamalan characters: the recent-love-that-didn’t-work-out. John Leguizamo probably does the best job of maneuvering around clunky, awkward dialogue as another schoolteacher and friend to Wahlberg but he’s also barely in the film and only really serves the purpose of, fairly early on, having Wahlberg and Deschanel watch after his little girl for the duration of the film.

I bring the acting up first only because it’s the most damning aspect of “The Happening”, but the pacing is issue number two. The film moves at a ridiculous speed and bits that seemed, on the page, like they’d be perfect for Shyamalan’s slow, long-running shots are rushed through and made laughable. The opening — which consists of a couple different scenes of people hurting themselves — almost flashes by and instead of being genuinely disturbing, they’re overly melodramatic and come off as fake. There’s something scary about someone not realizing they’re hurting themselves — as we do see at one point through a cell-phone video of a man walking casually into a lion cage and being torn apart — and something just plain stupid about forced shock like we get in a long, choreographed steadicam of people one by one shooting themselves, dropping the gun and letting the next person pick it up.

But this all just flashes by. There’s a problem and we cut to a school where the students take unrealistically in stride that the world is pretty much ending. The characters are so far removed from reality that, when news of the disaster hits, it makes you wonder if Shyamalan ever stepped outside his house on 9/11. There’s no panic or disorder and everyone freely accepts their information from the high school itself and goes home. No one’s getting texts or making phone calls or demanding that someone explain what’s happening.

Wahlberg and Deschanel take in Leguizamo’s little girl while he goes off to look for his wife. There’s all kinds of Spielberg “War of the Worlds” on the road bits, but they’re segmented and awkward. They’re on a train for a bit. They’re in a diner for a bit. They meet a soldier for a bit. They come to a farmhouse with a trigger-happy farmer. Nothing really sticks out as interesting or meaningful and all the while Wahlberg makes up crazy, crazy theories about how the neurotoxin works without any real evidence or logic. And, of course, he’s right.

Here’s the bit that I’m honestly not sure if it’s a spoiler or not so consider yourself warned: (highlight to read)

It’s plants that are responsible. They’ve decided to wipe out humanity and release the neuro-toxin as their natural weapon. This was far, far more clear in the script (and even the title “The Green Effect”) and I’m really of the opinion that it’s a pretty neat idea, though. What Shyamalan quickly finds, though, is that it’s very, very hard to menacingly cut to an evil-looking tree. That doesn’t stop him from trying, though, and he inexplicably adds wind as a way of livening up the scenes. When the leaves of a tree start to blow, evil’s afoot. It’s really, really hard not to laugh at and there’s even a real groaner of a gag-scene wherein Wahlberg timidly apologizes to a houseplant only to find that it’s made of rubber. Really.

After moving way, way too fast over the interesting parts, there’s an incredibly long and slow period where Mark, Zooey and little girl run afoul of a friendly old lady who instantly and for no particular reason explains that her house is of a bizarre architectural design (built for hiding slaves). She just sort of tells them this right off the bat and, believe it or not, it soon comes into play as a plot device.

If you’re dreading the Shyamalan trademark twist-ending, you can breathe a sigh of relief. There’s no twist whatsoever. But there’s also no ending. I won’t ruin it any further by talking about what’s not there, but prepare to feel very, very cheated and figure out in advance what consultation you can offer when the person next you confusedly asks, “Is that it?”

Seeing a Shyamalan has become this horrifically abusive relationship where I desperately cling to the belief that if I keep loving him, he’ll stop hitting me. I’m already telling myself that “The Last Airbender” will be fascinating because its an adaptation rather than an original creation. That’ll help, right? Because “The Happening” just makes me want to cry.

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