I had a strange feeling while watching M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, The Happening, and it was not just the horror of watching people kill themselves for no apparent reason. Neither was it fear over the threat of a mysterious event that was causing these suicides, nor disappointment about the amateurish performance of Mark Wahlberg as the hero of the story. It was an odd impression that this movie was dated, as if it had been sitting on the studio shelf for a decade or two, finally seeing the light of projector in June 2008. From the opening credits forward, Shyamalan’s attempt to emulate suspense master Alfred Hitchcock was pretty obvious. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite reach that calibre with The Happening. It felt more like a low-budget horror film from the 80s.
When people in New York City start to act like zombie lemmings, compelled by an unknown force to find the most convenient way to end their own lives, panic strikes the U.S. as the “epidemic” spreads. In Philadelphia (the home of most of Shyamalan’s movies), science teacher Wahlberg begins a trek with his wife (played by Zooey Deschanel) and some friends to try to find a safe place to stay. As the phenomenon (first suspected to be a terrorist attack) seems to be targeting large groups of people, Wahlberg, Deschanel and their little ad hoc family end up walking through the Pennsylvanian countryside to find shelter. The whole time, the suspense of not knowing where the danger would strike from next (Is it in the trees? Is it in the air? Is it all around?) was quite nerve-wracking. So if the goal was to keep me on the edge of my seat, then this movie is a success.
There were a few more pseudo-Hitchcockian situations that came up along the way (Have you ever wondered what Norman Bates’s mom might have been like while she was alive?), but it’s a pretty run of the mill disaster movie. Scenes of people fleeing from the cities reminded me of Deep Impact or War of the Worlds. The toxic threat was pure Outbreak (or the recent Andromeda Strain miniseries) but without the hazmats. The apocalyptic, “Where is everyone now?” and squatting in other peoples’ homes reminded me of I Am Legend. The obvious “homages”, surprising for someone as imaginative as Shyamalan (Have you seen his Amex commercial? Check it out on YouTube), made this movie disappointingly derivative. To top it off, Wahlberg was hardly convincing as a teacher or a husband. His entire performance seemed like it was his first time running through the script or maybe a rehearsal. Deschanel’s character was oddly useless. The two were having trouble in their relationship, and they had so little chemistry that it didn’t matter to me whether or not they worked it out (as if there was any doubt . . . what is this, my first horror-suspense-disaster movie?).
All that being said (and even with all the bad reviews of this movie that are out there), my judgment comes down to the fact that watching one suicide after another, committed in increasingly inventive and violent ways, can really wear down on the enjoyment level. I was gripped the whole time (I didn’t even get very distracted by the four-year-old — I know! Someone call Child Protective Services — sitting behind me, constantly asking her dad to leave), but I don’t think I ever want to see this movie again. (3 out of 5)
What if I had made The Happening?
Seriously, lay off the suicides. Only pick the important ones to actually show — the ones at the beginning, to establish the nature of the problem; and the occasional later scene for shock value. There’s some parts when they’re in the country that really don’t belong. It’s way over the top and they don’t really relate to the central story. I would have focused more on the characters and their relationships (the “rocky romance redeemed” was done so much better in Unbreakable). I also wouldn’t have introduced so many side characters. There was the nutty horticulturalist and his wife, the naive soldier, the Filipino realtor named Collins, and on. They were throwaways — they just took time away from the main characters (who were, sadly, far less interesting). Finally, I (since I would be Alvin Shyamalan, with the patented Shyamalan imaginative skills) would have spent a lot more brain juice on a fresh concept for this story, not a mish-mash of been-there-survived-that thematic recycling. Ultimately, I probably would have scrapped the entire project, opting instead to move up my next project (Airbender, a live-action version of one of my favourite animated shows), which is no doubt going to be awesome.