Robert Bailey Jr.
Thriller Weird Mist Horror
Trivia The movie was shot completely in sequence. No, really.
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The Happening (2008)
2nd Aug 08
Mark Wahlberg talks to plants, the plants want us dead and 28 Weeks Later called - it wants its ending back.
The backlash against M Night Shyamalan, which reached its zenith with the unfairly despised Lady In The Water in 2006, arguably began with the still-underrated Unbreakable, his first movie after the massively successful The Sixth Sense. Casting himself as a genius-prophet in his last movie did the writer-producer-director no favours but, although his acting presence in The Happening is almost imperceptible, the movie itself - his first R rated flick, made for 20th Century Fox - is not going to reverse the Shyamalan-bashing trend.
All of Shyamalan’s major Hollywood movies to date have contained at least some horror elements, though The Happening is perhaps his first bonafide genre picture : like the earlier Signs, it is heavily influenced both by The Birds and Night of the Living Dead in its focus on a disparate group of people brought together by an apparently apocalyptic event no one understands. This movie was clearly conceived as an environmentalist chiller along the lines of 70’s features like The Last Wave and Long Weekend : a throwback “revenge of nature” flick infused with inevitable 9/11 echoes and helpfully riding on the panic-stricken coattails of An Inconvenient Truth.
Now for the bad news. The awesome preview trailers were significantly scarier and more credibly paranoid than the film itself. This is perhaps because said trailers cannily avoided any sustained footage of the movie’s acting and also skirted dialogue howlers like “Mother of God, what have those terrorists done now?” (the fact that this dialogue follows an unwittingly hilarious video clip of a guy feeding himself to lions at Central Park Zoo doesn’t help).
Considering the evidence available conveying Shyamalan’s talents as a screenwriter and director, there’s something both upsetting and befuddling about the genuinely dire, embarrassing dialogue that torpedoes The Happening. Unintentional hilarity means that the intense eco-horror intended to freak us out and make us think about what Bastards We Humans Are turns into (an admittedly compelling) extended train wreck. It’s a train wreck filled with enjoyable diversions, like a peculiar depiction of Pennsylvanians as wide-eyed nut-jobs and even some misplaced intentional humour (like a cutaway to two old biddies in gasmasks knitting as they watch the end of the world unfold on the TV news). But it’s a train wreck nonetheless, complete with high-profile casualties.
What’s even more painful is that the film begins in a notably chilling, powerful fashion like it MIGHT be the frightening flick promised by the previews. In Central Park, random folks suddenly become confused, incoherent and suicidal. At a nearby building site, several unrelated people hurl themselves to their doom. Across the East Coast of America, similar events occur with multiple fatalities. Immediately, everyone believes the “happening” to be an act of bio-terrorism, including science teacher Mark Wahlberg, his wife Zooey Deschanel, plus their Math teacher pal (a short-lived John Leguiezamo). They hit the road and head to the country away from the “happening” zone. Facing possible extinction due to Mother Nature’s unleashed wrath - specifically hostile plant life - brings the boringly troubled Wahlberg and Deschanel closer together.
One problem with The Happening is that the past year has already produced one outstanding eco-horror film (namely The Last Winter, a movie as subtle and insidiously creepy as this one is overwrought and hokey) and one superb Romero-influenced 70’s-styled microcosm-of-apocalypse genre flick (The Mist). Another problem with The Happening is that almost everyone in the cast forgot how to act and Shyamalan forgot how to write convincing dialogue and credible scenarios.
Not surprisingly given the director’s track record, the best performance is by a kid (though, to be fair to the others, she doesn’t have an awful lot of lines to wrestle with). More surprising, following strong star turns by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Paul Giamatti in Shyamalan’s earlier films, is the jaw-droopingly terrible central performance. The prosecution would like to remind the jury that recent cinema history has proven Mark Wahlberg capable of being a potent, believable presence in a movie. Here the actor flounders amidst a welter of ill-advised close-ups and clunking lines, while coming off (with his virtually unchanging furrowed-brow facial expression) less like an intelligent man facing an apocalyptic event, and more like a slightly stupid dude straining for a shit. Deschanel, whose extraordinary eyes are hypnotic to the point of distraction, also delivers a performance that feels … just plain off.
In a showy late-in-the-day cameo as a doomed hermit with a life-size creepy doll in her bed, CARRIE’s Betty Buckley is striking, though even her portrayal could and should have been reined in a bit. Other characters and performances fare little better, though no one is dealt any favours by a script full of lazy plotting : Wahlberg and Deschanel, for instance, just happen to bump into an eccentric botanist dude who handily suggests a scenario that helpfully turns out to be the movie’s plot! Also in the scripting-by-numbers department, at one point, the leads stumble across a working radio hanging from a tree in the middle of a field for no reason other than the fact that it keeps them and the plot moving.
Moments of genuine alarm punctuate The Happening : the discovery of a row of hanged cadavers, a tracking shot following a chain of suicides all involving the same gun. There are just as many moments that, while intended to be shocking, are neutered by startlingly poor execution and judgement. The fatal shooting of two young lads would be an unexpectedly grim, horrible moment were it not for the fact that Shyamalan turns it into a laugh riot via a corny slo-mo reaction shot of Wahlberg that wouldn’t be out of place during a dramatic moment in Baywatch.
It’s become fashionable to bash Shyamalan, but this reviewer happens to have more than a passing admiration for everything the guy has done thus far. Kudos to him here for once again making a modern thriller without overt visual FX, sex, swearing or even much explicit violence. James Newton Howard’s beautifully sombre, cello-dominated score also continues an exceptional composer-director partnership. Sadly, this movie is destined to be remembered as a queasily compelling embarrassment. Maybe it just isn’t possible to make a scary movie from a script featuring a dramatic climax in which a group of characters flee in terror from….a gust of wind.
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