I could almost feel sorry for
M. Night Shyamalan. From the self-assured auteur who manipulated both
his medium and his audience to such great effect in 1999's “The Sixth
Sense,” his films have devolved into unsatisfying exercises that smell
faintly of Hitchcock but appear to have learned little from that master.
All of his films have their moments, where lighting
and music and simple but subtle camera work draw you in and misdirect
your fears only to slam you from another direction. That happened
several times in “Signs” before it degenerated into an unconvincing,
blubbery testimonial to the existence of God. “The Village” had some
atmospheric jolts before you figured out the “secret” about half an
hour in, but not enough to drag me to “Lady in the Water,” which was,
by all accounts, a fairy tale more fractured than mythic.
“The Happening,” which just opened locally, marks
another level of devolution in Shyamalan's work. The storytelling in
this new feature is luke-warm, static, and anemic; the plot involves
people fleeing from a disaster, but even when they're running it's hard
to get excited, because you can't see what they're running from.
Even the laughable “Cloverfield” had a big monster
that knocked skyscrapers over. “The Happening” is trying for a more
subtle approach, but it's too subtle for its own good: “Look out! Here
comes the breeze!”
The movie starts with an arresting visual: on a
balmy summer's day, strollers in New York's Central Park suddenly stop
in their tracks and begin committing suicide by the hundreds. Overhead,
flights of construction workers start sailing off their scaffolding and
landing with sickening thuds, in a badly-calculated facsimile of the
Down in Philadelphia, Mark Wahlberg plays a high
school science teacher who's trying to get his class interested in the
disappearance of the honeybees. As soon as he sounds this foreshadowy
note of ecological disaster, news arrives of what is thought to be the
terrorist attack in New York: a fiendish neurotoxin? Maybe.
Nothing's happening yet in Philly, but Mark and his
family, along with several thousand friends, decide to break for the
presumably safer wide open spaces just before the Bad Thing hits
When the news spreads through the train via cell
phones – a gimmick that screenwriters seem no longer able to do without
– Wahlberg immediately twigs to the fact that Both Times It Started In
That pretty much gives the show away – before long
we all know that the plants are altering their chemistry to get rid of
the nasty humans by flipping our self-preservation switch to cause the
mass suicides. If this sounds unconvincing to you, ask yourself why the
plants started out by slaughtering the bees, which are absolutely
necessary to plant survival.
From then on all the cast can do is run away from
the wind, which is a thankless task even for very good actors.
Wahlberg, who has matured tremendously since his
Marky Mark days, here forgoes his usual tough-guy image to play a
refreshingly sweet, thoughtful and smart kinda guy. Zooey Deschanel, as
his wife, has a kind of goofy charm that comes across in her kind of
goofy acting. And fortunately they both get a few fairly humorous
scenes – at one point Wahlberg starts talking to a plastic tree – that
I'm willing to concede might have been put in on purpose.
Unfortunately there are even more scenes that are
unintentionally funny: there's an episode in a zoo's lion house that
should have been horrifying, but which perfectly mirrors the Black
Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” SURELY Shyamalan has
watched Monty Python, and if he hasn't, how does he dare even START?
And if he IS aping Monty Python for comic effect, he's wrecking the
TONE. Sorry, M. Night, you're damned both ways. (No more upper-case
flaming, I promise.)
Eventually the pollen, or whatever, whittles the
refugees down to our couple and their best friend's little girl, who
discover the perfect Buck's County stone farmhouse fixer-upper.
Fortunately for the movie's last ten minutes it's inhabited by Betty
Buckley, who plays a tart old Luddite dame who provides a refreshing
Mammy-Yokum foil to the helpless city folk.
Believe me, I'm not saying that subtle can't be
scary. Robert Wise's 1963 “The Haunting” is still the single most
terrifying movie ever made, and you see absolutely nothing: there are
no monsters, there are no psychopaths. It's all done with suggestion
and psychology, just as in Shirley Jackson's book. (Do you think maybe
Shyamalan hasn't watched this one either?)
I haven't seen Shyamalan's earlier work, “Praying
with Anger” and “Wide Awake,” which got good critical buzz, but I'll
never forget being gobsmacked (in the best way) by “Sixth Sense.” Now
it's looking as if Shyamalan may be one of those tyros who peaks early
and spends the rest of his career flailing madly in an attempt to
recapture his early triumphs. If so, too bad; I think the guy
ought to relax and let his subconscious linger over a few more
archetypes for a while.
There are still many horror movies about ecological
disaster to be made. Like Roland Emmerich's 2004 “Day After
Tomorrow” they may be unsubtle and scientifically spurious but hugely
entertaining. “The Happening” is both spurious and dull, which is close
to unforgivable, because it trivializes the problem.