While writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, “The Happening,” doesn’t rely on shocking twists the way earlier films like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village” did, many potential viewers won’t want to know too much about the plot before seeing it. So if you prefer to be kept in the dark, stop reading after the second paragraph.
For those of you about to avert your eyes, let me just say that “The Happening” is a big snooze, riddled with awful dialogue and unconvincing performances, all underlined by a dreadful score by James Newton Howard, a composer whose vocabulary is missing the phrase “on the nose.” If this was the movie to rescue the reputation of self-styled genius Shyamalan after the disaster of “Lady in the Water,” then it’s back to the old drawing board.
And now, the spoilers…
Mark Wahlberg stars as Elliot, a Philadelphia high school science teacher currently weathering marital difficulties with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). While Elliot is talking to his class about possible theories behind the recent dip in the global honeybee population, New Yorkers in Central Park are experiencing a bizarre phenomenon — people suddenly get disoriented, then they commit suicide. And then it starts happening elsewhere in Manhattan. And all over the northeast.
Elliot and Alma flee the city with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), but the strange occurrences follow them out to the countryside. While initial news reports blame nerve gas–wielding terrorists, scientists eventually discover that the pathogens are organic, leading Elliot to figure out that plants are poisoning people — first in densely populated areas, then in places where there are fewer humans — as a defense mechanism.
That’s right — the plants. While the idea of the planet’s flora ganging up on humanity for its own survival is a potentially interesting one, Shyamalan is basically remaking “The Birds” with shrubs filling in for gulls. (I kept waiting for someone to say, “I never thought it would be the trees; they’ve always been our friends.”) Except that “The Birds” is riveting.
“The Happening” scores a few effective shocks — one scene has refugees coming upon a landscaper’s truck, followed by a row of ladders, and then a dozen workmen hanging themselves from the treetops — but too much of the movie involves Wahlberg panicking as he watches a breeze blow through the foliage. (At one point, he advises a group of people to “stay ahead of the wind.” And you thought outrunning a fireball was the most inconceivable feat you’d ever see in a movie.)
Even forgiving the whole spores-are-coming-to-get-you silliness, “The Happening” offers little else of interest. Wahlberg and Deschanel’s marital problems are dull and unconvincing even by disaster-movie standards; Charlton Heston and Karen Black’s relationship squabbles in “Airport 1975” were fascinating by comparison.
And while Shyamalan’s attempts to be Rod Serling and/or Alfred Hitchcock have led to a series of diminishing cinematic returns, he’s not doing any better as an Irwin Allen-Al Gore hybrid. There’s just not enough happening in “The Happening.”