The Happening (20th Century Fox, R)

film_happening_sm.jpgWhile some of the scenes of "the happening" are terrifying, others are just ridiculous.








On leaving the advance screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, a fellow patron summed up his view on the film with, "Well, at least it wasn’t Lady in the Water." Yes, happily, the absolute least that can be said of this film is that it does not represent further proof that this talented, once promising filmmaker has lost his artistic judgment, storytelling ability and possibly his mind. Unfortunately, the uneven The Happening does not represent a return to Shyamalan’s first excellent efforts, but it is a step in the right direction.

The film follows the unfolding of a "happening" or an "event" as the characters call it, a sudden, widespread and bizarre attack of unknown origin—terrorist, extraterrestrial, environmental or evil governmental accident—that kills millions in New England and the northeast. At the advice of his jittery friend (the excellent John Leguizamo), high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) agrees to flee Philadelphia with his emotionally distant young wife (Zooey Deschanel), accompanied by his young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). To the growing terror of the survivors, the "attack" comes in the form of an undetectable airborne toxin that causes the exposed to become disoriented and commit suicide. As the situation deteriorates, the dwindling group of survivors flees to the countryside, hoping to evade who or whatever is responsible with an increasing lack of success.

In interviews, Shyamalan has repeated called the film a "paranoid" thriller. To reinforce that paranoia, he and director of photography Tak Fujimoto (his DP on The Sixth Sense and Signs) employ close-ups and frames full of small knots of anxious people to great effect. Repeatedly Shyamalan shoves in close on actors, uncomfortably so, passing that discomfort on to the audience and giving even peripheral scenes a heightened sense of anxiety.

However, this is largely a film filled with missed opportunities. The characters come to believe that plants are responsible for releasing the toxin. Instead of seizing upon this ultimate formulation of "terror in ordinary places" (Hitchcock’s signature)—peaceful parks turned into killing zones, amber waves of grain become minefields—Shyamalan chooses to use a hokey wind effect to demonstrate the creeping menace. Shots of actors fleeing headlong from a gentle, "whooshing" breeze are almost as ridiculous as they sound. Plus, while some of the scenes of "the happening" are terrifying (construction workers plummeting to their deaths), others are just ridiculous (a scene of a zookeeper being "torn apart" could have come from Monty Python).

The best genre films of this type allow us to process some facet of modern life (for example, 28 Days Later… held a mirror up to post-9/11 disasters). This film tantalizingly raises many issues. If plants are responsible, how do you flee vegetation when the planet is covered with it and its oxygen production makes life possible? Details and amateur video of the disaster are spread by viral video and handheld devices. The survivors briefly seek refuge in a suburban model home, image of both the unending incursion of man on nature’s few remaining refuges and an eerie view of the abandoned, people-less future if the attack does not stop. Finally, the survivors seek refuge at the end of the film with an old woman living a disconnected rural life: no phone, no electricity. Is this the lot of life of the remaining humans—forced to live desolate, disconnected existences in tiny groups, hoping the plants stop viewing them as a threat and let them live? Oblivious to these or other more interesting large questions, the plot simply hitches along to its unsatisfying conclusion.

It is unclear what Shyamalan’s message is with The Happening. It is clear that the average moviegoer should cheer his creeping rehabilitation but take a pass on this first effort. | Joe Hodes

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