What Happened?

by Ian T. McFarland on June 13, 2008

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: The Happening
  • IMDB: link

A good film reviewer, like a journalist, should be unbiased when covering a subject.  If you’re walk into a movie theater with abnormally high hopes for a film, it might be more difficult admitting actual faults in the movie after it’s finished playing.

Well, I like to think I can keep myself reasonably unbiased; but I’ve been rooting for writer/director/producer/actor M. Night Shyamalan‘s extra loudly ever since he began to be unfairly trashed (circa his 2004 let-down, The Village).  So I walked into Shyamalan’s newest effort, Rated-R thriller The Happening hoping it would be a bright bastion of tense filmmaking that would force the haters to concede to Shyamalan’s talent.  And yet, even with my high hopes and willingness to overlook slight errors in the filmmaker’s work, I found myself actually laughing out loud at – not with – much of The Happening.

In this paranoia thriller, beautiful people Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel try their best to survive an unexplainable plague that suddenly and ruthlessly grips a specific pocket of northern New England, including Philadelphia and New York City.  The plague, which sends its victims into a blabbering mode before becoming temporarily paralyzed and eventually killing themselves, takes out entire cities and makes for a great premise.  A biologically reimagined Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s valid and grade-A frightening.  It’s proof that Shyamalan’s ticker is still working, and gives us hope that it might someday give us the films of the high caliber of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs again.
But the majority of Shyamalan’s work on the film is, by all means, a miserable failure.  He’s still a master of the thrill, as seen in some solid scenes documenting the plague taking its effect on human populations; but these sequences can’t come close to making up for Shyamalan’s funky structure, a random crazy lady that somehow becomes a major player in the plot once she’s introduced at the end of the second act, unremarkable photography that looks like the work of suburban mom who never takes her point-and-shoot off of automatic and the energy-less, stagnant scenes often close to void of tension.
Perhaps the Shyamalan’s major failing, though, is his actors.  The potentially sparklingly endearing Deschenal is drab and awkward, and Wahlberg showcases as much talent as Dirk Diggler in a Brock Landers picture.  Wahlberg’s acting is over-the-top, over-reacting to every line and, with an unintentionally comical slight lisp, and may become the stuff of bad-acting legend.  Someone is going to put together a great YouTube reel of Wahlberg’s most absurd moments in this film; and it will be funnier than any of the jokes in The Happening (which, if you couldn’t guess, almost never land.)

In all earnesty and minority, I’ve been a fan of both of Shyamalan’s letdowns (The Village and 2006’s underrated Lady in the Water), and I would gladly defend his name in the face of unfair bashing.  But after sitting through The Happening, I don’t know if I should bother to put my reputation on the line.  Shyamalan continues to demonstrate that he can build tension like few others in Hollywood today; but he is clearly not the film auteur he appears to consider himself to be.  Maybe he needs a break, maybe he needs to stop doing so much himself in his films and let some other voices in on the creative process; but it is clear that Shyamalan is a fraction of the filmmaker he was even just six years ago, and all we can do is hope that whatever happened to his filmmaking reverses itself.

Previous post:

Next post: