Rumors of M. Night Shyamalan’s hackery have been greatly exaggerated. With The Happening, a misfire on many levels, Shyamalan still manages to prove that he’s got an expert grasp of film language and style. Unfortunately, it’s human language he struggles with, which unintentionally turns The Happening into more of a campy mess than the moody disaster thriller he’s aiming for.
The plot, at least in the beginning, is one thing he gets right. In the first ten minutes of the film we see people in various locations of New York City suddenly fall silent, stop in their tracks, and commit suicide with whatever method is most handy. A woman stabs herself in the neck with a knitting needle, right before a series of construction workers jump off buildings. The shots of all the people standing stock still are bone chilling, as is the sight of bodies of workers flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
After that breathtaking opening, we meet Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a couple living in Philadelphia and quarreling with each other for unknown reasons. News about the New York suicides—pinned on nerve gas from a terrorist attack—reaches Elliot while he’s teaching his science class, and he and a fellow teacher (John Leguizamo) decide to decamp to the countryside with their families, lest Philly be the next target. Though Leguizamo’s character is the most interesting of the bunch, he soon departs to go back and find his wife, leaving his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) in Elliot and Alma’s baffled care.
From then on our strange family is on the run, both from the occasional crazies they encounter along their journey and from the real cause of the suicides. I don’t think this can fairly be considered a spoiler any more, stop reading right now if you don't want to know... and here goes—it’s plants. Yes, nature, after centuries of abuse at the hands of humanity, has decided to strike back the only way they know how—emitting a toxin that causes humans to suddenly kill themselves. There’s an attempt at scientifically explaining the phenomenon in the beginning, but plausibility isn’t the issue; what really matters is how well nature will work as a villain.
Surprisingly enough, plants are OK bad guys at first. With Alma and Elliot on the run in the countryside, each shot contains a tree or bush, a potent reminder of the threat that may be activated at any moment. And somehow or another the toxins—which are reportedly spreading from cities to less-populated areas—come to be represented by gusts of wind, which everyone outruns with limited success. It sounds hokey, but it’s surprisingly effective, given how often we’ve seen wind symbolize some kind of evil in countless sci-fi and fantasy movies.
In the battle that Shyamalan has set up between nature and humanity, it’s the people who really get the raw end of the deal. Elliot and Alma are bland, flat characters, and aren’t helped by the atrocious performances by two normally appealing actors. Even Betty Buckley, a stage veteran, is an over-the-top disaster as a kooky old woman who shows up later in the film. Shyamalan wants to make this disaster movie a study of what makes us human, but the human specimens on display here are so unappealing, you find yourself rooting for the plants.
It’s unclear how the guy who gave us Haley Joel Osment’s breakout performance has developed such a tin ear for dialogue and character, but it’s what dooms The Happening from any kind of success. Despite his considerable skill behind the camera, Shyamalan can’t seem to step in front and direct his actors, or give them decent material to work with. For all his complaints recently about being misunderstood, it seems it’s Shyamalan who simply doesn’t get us.