Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
“The Happening.” Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Lequizamo, and others. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. 91 minutes. Rated R.
Terrorists have just attacked your city. An airborne agent is causing people to commit suicide en masse. You are standing in line to board what may the last train out of the danger zone. Do you:
(a) Get in line as quickly as possible and hope you actually find a seat on the train, or
(b) Make everyone wait as you and your wife have a long, soulful conversation about the strains in your marriage.
If this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie the answer is (b) of course, and that scene is emblematic of the problems with what could have been a nifty little horror movie, “The Happening.”
Two giant flaws will keep “The Happening” from joining my DVD collection – at least until it reaches the discount bin at Walmart: writing and direction. Shyamalan has been living off the good will generated by “The Sixth Sense” for many years, but he may have used up that charity. “The Happening” is an unrecoverable mess.
The movie begins with such promise. People in Central Park suddenly begin killing themselves in a plague of violence that spreads across the city. The first five minutes offer some really scary scene-setting – construction workers hurling themselves off a building, and cops shooting themselves in the head with their own guns.
Science teacher Mark Wahlburg is summoned from his classroom after telling kids that some events are merely natural cycles that will never be explained (Galileo must be spinning in his grave) and learns a terrorist attack has threatened New York City. He calls his wife, Zooey Deschanel, and arranges to meet with a friend at the train station to evacuate. It is there that they have their marriage encounter as mobs of terrified civilians scramble to get aboard the train.
As they flee the city and the contagion spreads, they begin to realize the event is not a terrorist attack at all but a response from plants to the assault on the natural world by humankind.
The movie is filled with quietly gruesome scenes – a man lies down to allow a riding lawnmower to chop him to bits, or tree-trimmers hang themselves from the branches they were preparing to cut.
But it is the inane and distracting subplot between Wahlburg and Deschanel that ruins “The Happening.” Civilization is crumbling around them yet they pause – usually during moments of duress – to fret about their troubled relationship, which on the face of it doesn’t appear to be that troubled: Deschanel went out with a male coworker to enjoy an ice cream cone.
Not exactly “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
One more gripe: Throughout the movie the attack is referred to as “the event,” yet the title is “The Happening.” Why?
I think Shyamalan has succumbed to the bane of the untouchable creator – he who cannot be edited most desperately needs editing. It’s a shame because with a decent script and a more grounded director, “The Happening” could have been another sleeper like “The Sixth Sense.”
Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.