M. Night Shyamalan's long slide into filmmaking irrelevance picks up speed with The Happening, a poorly titled, apocalyptic horror misfire. Like an episode of The Outer Limits (the recent cable version, not the superior original) stretched far beyond its capacity to engage, the celebrated filmmaker's latest takes a decent premise and botches its execution on just about every level.
Mark Wahlberg plays high school science teacher Elliot Moore. John Leguizamo is Julian, his best friend and fellow math teacher. Neither has much personality, but they sure do talk about "science" and "math" a lot. Not with any depth, nuance or metaphorical weight, mind you, but in that we're-defined-by-a-single-trait school of screenwriting that plagues much of Shyamalan's work. When people start committing mass suicide in cities all across the Northeast, Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), go on the run with Julian's 8-year-old daughter, while Julian tragically goes in search of his spouse. They are all fleeing what, at first, seems to be a terrorist attack but soon turns out to be an environmental event. As the paths to safety become narrower and narrower, the trio find themselves stranded in rural Pennsylvania, clinging to survival while everyone around them either kills themselves or one another.
And then it ends. No kidding. The Happening is all setup and no story. And while the notion that plants might decide to get rid of the planet's most evolved pest (mankind) could have been disturbingly apocalyptic, here it's just plain comical. Shyamalan thinks he's delivering the eco-version of War of the Worlds but instead of generating scares, his efforts only elicit snickers.
It takes a strong ego to believe that an idea jotted on a cocktail napkin is enough to carry an entire film, but that's what he's done, in defiance of every known rule to screenwriting. Of course, Shyamalan has sprinkled in a few grisly deaths, some laughably bad dialogue — the hot dog exchange is a classic — and half-hearted marital discord for good measure. But his greatest trick may be the ability to rob a perfectly decent cast of its ability to act. Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo, if they had any sense, would purchase every copy of the DVD release six months from now and throw them into the fire.
Meanwhile, someone should tell Shyamalan that there's a difference between stilted emotions and stilted acting. At first it seemed that emotional disconnection was his thing. In his early hits, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson played numbed-to-the-world protagonists who struggled to bond with their loved ones. Now it's clear that real human interaction is simply beyond Shyamalan's ability. Not a good trait for a filmmaker who trades in big ideas writ small.
Since the breakout success of The Sixth Sense — a fine movie that was probably kept on track by über-producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy — Shyamalan has delivered work of ever-diminishing quality. Unbreakable was an interesting but pretentious failure (that paved the way for NBC's much better Heroes). Signs was profoundly moronic but well-directed. The Village and Lady in the Water signaled a filmmaker finally consumed by hubris. As each of his narrative gimmicks became more desperate, Shyamalan's inability to craft a decent story arc became more evident. With The Happening, it's obvious he's trying to prove to his critics that he really is the auteur he believes himself to be.
Unfortunately, his environmental wake-up call is less about watching the end of the world and more about watching the end of his career. It's sad to say, but an episode of What's Happening? would be a better use of your time. I recommend the one where "Raj" tells the chick he has a crush on that he played a storm trooper in Star Wars.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.