Those hoping to force M. Night Shyamalan out of filmmaking once and for all won’t get what they’re looking for with The Happening. Following last summer’s spectacular flameout Lady in the Water, The Happening is a return to the genre movies that inspired Shyamalan to begin with, and is absent much of the spiritual mumbo-jumbo that has been turning off his viewers since Signs. An attempt to make a character study out of a standard-issue disaster flick, The Happening is a worthy effort that fails to gel, but provides plenty to think about.
The “happening” of the title is a series of suicides that start occurring in parks all over the East Coast. In Central Park a woman stabs herself in the neck, and nearby construction workers take flying leaps. A zookeeper in Philadelphia feeds himself to the lions, while elsewhere in the city, a series of people use the same gun to off themselves. Terrorism is fingered as the culprit, of course, so a handful of Philadelphia residents lucky enough not to be caught in the first wave head out of town, hoping to escape the mysterious toxic gas that causes the suicides.
Among them are Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel), a couple going through a rough patch thanks to Alma’s so-called “date” with some dude named Joey (Shyamalan, thankfully in voice only). They’re fleeing with Elliot’s fellow high-school teacher Julian (John Leguizamo), who soon abandons them to track down his wife, leaving his eight-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) in Elliot and Alma’s care.
What follows is kind of a chase movie, with the pursuer represented by gusts of wind and the ever-present, ominous trees. Yes, it’s the plants emitting the toxin, in what seems to be payback for all the raw deals humanity has served them over the years. Shyamalan effectively uses the inescapable greenery of the countryside to create claustrophobia, with each outdoor shot containing a reminder of the danger at hand. And as silly as it sounds, the air coursing through the trees eventually does become threatening; used as a harbinger of bad things to come in countless movies, the wind here steps up to leading-villain status.
As he’s done in most of his films, Shyamalan wants to use spooky events to examine familial ties and relationships. Unfortunately the family he has placed at the center of the drama is as bland as can be, and both Wahlberg and Deschanel turn in the most wooden performances of their careers. Even Betty Buckley, in a later supporting role, is a mess. The acting is so bad as to almost seem intentional, but it only results in characters who are as unrealistic as they are annoying.
Not once do Elliot or Alma acknowledge that the plants might have a reasonable grievance, even though several supporting characters act in brutal ways that suggest humanity might not be all that worth saving. Shyamalan seems to be aiming for a deliberate statement about the ways humans have ruined the planet, but by the time we get to hillbillies wielding shotguns and a crazy recluse woman who collects dolls, any semblance of a message has been muddled beyond recognition.
The visual style of The Happening is impeccable, and a handful of genuinely suspenseful moments override the cheap shocks. But generally, there’s not enough to compensate for the weak characters and ham-fisted execution of a fascinating concept. The weak acting threatens to tilt the whole thing over into camp, and doubtlessly some audiences will have a hard time not giggling in some sections. For a movie trying to be serious and moody, that’s a dealbreaker. The Happening isn’t the triumphant comeback Shyamalan sorely needs, but it’s a reminder that he has the style and instincts of a talented filmmaker. Now if only he could find a story worth telling.