When someone writes the book When Bad Movies Happen To Good Screenplays, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening certainly deserves its own chapter. An eco-thriller with a great premise that promises much but delivers nothing except for stale performances and direction so limp that not even anything out of the research labs of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals could get it to stir, the film leaves one to wonder what has happened to Shyamalan, the man who so effectively thrilled audiences with The Sixth Sense.
Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel star as a married couple, Elliot and Alma, who are going through a rough patch. However, their own marital problems pale in comparison to the strange incident taking place all around them. People seem to suddenly act strange and then, with a frightening casualness, kill themselves. The phenomenon first appears in New York City’s Central Park and quickly spreads across the city with construction workers falling from skyscrapers. As the crisis begins to spread through the northeast of the country, fears and speculation begin to spread that it might be a terrorist attack of some sort. Elliot surmises that it is an attack from nature itself, a toxin being emitted from planets and carried in the wind. Elliot and Alma go on the run with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo), trying to stay ahead of the strange phenomenon.
Shyamalan never manages to convey any form of suspense to his audience. With an aggravatingly lethargic pace, events happen and then some more events happen. However, there is never any sense of narrative momentum, no building of tension or rising of anxiety. As Elliot, Alma and Jess struggle to stay ahead of what is causing people to kill themselves, we never get a feeling of their terror and desperation that sets in over the course of their journey. Granted, an airborne toxin is not the most cinematic of devices. However, other directors such as Sam Raimi in his Evil Dead films, have managed quite well at making an invisible menace suspenseful.
The movie holds its events at a distance from itself. Although there is plenty of potential for the audience to emotional engage in Alma and Elliot’s marital problems and how they become resolved, the film’s coldness never lets that happen. Even when it comes to the couple’s happy ending in the final seconds of the film, Shyamalan’s camera observes it from a city block away. We would have more connection with random strangers passed on the street than we do with the characters we meet here.
Further aggravating this sense of detachment are the flat performances from the cast. Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo have all proven that they can deliver strong, complex performances. For all three of them to have delivered such nearly one-note, subdued performances could only have been done so at the insistence of the director. I don’t know what Shyamalan was ultimately going for in this film, but it failed to connect with me as a viewer.