Cinema review: The Happening

June 29 2008 at 9:57 pm (Cinema reviews)

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most interesting writer/directors working in Hollywood today. He plays by his own rules despite some very heavy criticism. He needed a hit after the misfiring Lady in the Water, so it’s unfortunate that his latest offering is another disappointment.

The good news is that he is still a good director. He carefully fills each and every frame with an overarching sense of tension and dread. The bad news is that this is overshadowed by some very poor dialogue and a bafflingly nonsensical central idea.

Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot Moore a high school science teacher who flees Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter when people start mysteriously committing suicide in and around New York.

It is soon established that what’s causing this ‘event’ is an environmental anomaly rather than a terrorist attack, which means that people don’t really know what they’re running away from. It’s all kept conspicuously vague – people keep saying that ‘something’s happening’ and going on about ‘events’.

The main problem, though, is that what’s going on is so farfetched that nobody can seem to explain it convincingly. In fact, huge passages of the script seem to have been copied and pasted from Wikipedia. And sadly, it would appear that bad writing makes bad actors. Mark Wahlberg is unconvincing as a high school science teacher. And is it just me or is his voice becoming more and more camp? The normally great John Leguizamo is wasted and Zooey Deschanel has little more to do than stare worriedly. Nobody really seems to know what they’re doing.

Shyamalan’s films have become a case of waiting for the punchline and this is no exception. With so much cryptic nonsense being spouted by everyone, you’re fooled into just letting it go, expecting it all to be explained in the final reel. The ‘important ecological’ twist (which is harder to swallow than outrunning the second Ice Age in The Day After Tomorrow) is explained about an hour in, so you walk away feeling unsatisfied rather than wanting to join Greenpeace.

What we end up with is a showcase for some inventive suicides (a hairpin, a window, a lawnmower). Why people don’t just lock themselves in a death-proofed room is anyone’s guess. Instead these rational people become like terminally depressed zombie MacGyvers using anything they can get their hands on to finish themselves off.

The Happening should have been a return to form and in some ways it is a better film than Lady in the Water (at least Shyamalan has got over his vanity long enough to all but write himself out of this one) but the poor writing, dodgy acting and absurd concept make it at best a valiant failure.
Rating: 2/5

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