In a virtually packed AMC movie theatre in metro-Atlanta, I heartily chuckled and gasped while watching “The Happening,” M. Night Shyamalan’s new tossed-genre escapade.
Starring Mark Wahlberg as science teacher Elliot Moore and Zooey Deschanel as his somewhat reluctant wife, Alma, “The Happening” whips up a menacing force that causes a forty-eight hour wave of suicides in the northeast region of the United States. Joined by survivors they encounter along the trail of evacuation, husband-and-wife and Jess [ (Ashlyn Sanchez), the daughter of Elliot’s colleague (John Leguizamo) ], must figure out an explanation for what has been happening in neighboring states and how to stay alive.
In light of increased organized efforts in the past few years to reduce, re-use, and recycle, and to avoid taking natural resources for granted (or relying too heavily on them), it shouldn’t be that difficult to make an educated guess as to the identity of this film’s “monster.” If you’ve seen any promotional videos of “The Happening,” you shouldn’t be surprised to learn rather early in this nature revenge picture that “it’s the plants.” Specifically, an airborne toxin causes “confused speech,” “disorientation,” which leads to self-termination.
Mark Wahlberg’s manner of speaking may seem wooden, corny, and occasionally overly diplomatic; and Zooey Deschanel appears offbeat and self-conscious a la “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (Garth Jennings, 2005). Considering the film’s themes, however, their performances are purposefully out-of-sync or out of place for a science thriller. Moreover, the result of this mismatch resembles B-movie comedy, which counteracts the anticipated and the sudden appearances of onscreen acts of self-inflicted violence.
As writer and one of the producers, Shyamalan’s creative control remains intact. “The Happening” differs from the rest of his filmography (“The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, “Signs”, “The Village”, and “Lady in the Water”) in the precise development of suspense (breadcrumb-trail-of-clues), viewer identification (do we really care?), and adherence to genre conventions (nature revenge story with comic-drama performances), but the deviations do not outnumber the similarities. The viewer is still expected or strongly encouraged to pay extra attention to the significance of repeated images and phrases. Although “The Happening” lacks the crescendo of a third-act plot twist, the audience can nevertheless experience a certain satisfaction in cracking the verdant enemy’s method of attack—something the characters have yet to understand. Whether you’re a casual or an ardent follower of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, “The Happening” could alienate or dominate your thinking cap. Remember—it’s perfectly acceptable to laugh one second and shriek the next.