A lot of flack has been thrown at director M. Night Shyamalan regarding The Happening. Either his stories aren’t up to par or they’re just too weird, or the twists he’s thrown in aren’t entertaining enough, or he hasn’t thrown in twists. The poor guy had so much success with his first outing The Sixth Sense that it’s been hard to come back with anything more than a mediocre outing to the public eye. The same has happened with The Happening, except in a more emphasized manner. Lady in the Water especially created a rift between Shyamalan and the public eye, creating a situation where The Happening either had to come back big and strong a la The Sixth Sense or interests would wane even more. It seems The Happening wasn’t exactly what the public was hoping for (could it be the critique on our environmental pollution affecting our subconscious in part?), but the overall hate for the film seems unwarranted.
Consider the fact that Shyamalan’s story is rich and developed. Sure, it follows the same format as a typical zombie movie, with a strange outbreak of irrational, suicidal behavior by humans in highly populated areas. But story-wise, all similarities to “of the dead” type films stop there, because The Happening‘s plot is buoyed by the fact that the script is smart, current, and ecologically poignant. Putting a focus on plants’ survival instincts, Shyamalan highlights the current crisis we face as we further our destruction of he Earth by creating a threat which before seemed passive – our own environments.
The film progresses smoothly enough, opening with a tense and violent introduction into the affliction before settling on Mark Wahlberg‘s character Elliot, a science teacher who, after hearing about the outbreak, attempts to outrun the ailment with wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). Elliot is soft-spoken, even-tempered and good-natured, seemingly out of character for Wahlberg, but the actor pulls it off fairly well, with only a hint of robotic monotone thrown in. On the other hand, Alma is fantastically annoying with her fair share of quirks. It works, though, emphasizing the rift between Alma and Elliot in their struggling marriage; however, this little subplot about love between two feuding adults seems insubstantial in the bulk of the film, an unnecessary and, towards the finale, slightly corny attempt at an emotional climax. In fact, the tearful departing between Elliot’s friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter overpowers the love story, making it pale in comparison.
From the powerful opening, Shyamalan grabs the viewer with surprising violence, a technique he’s never used before. It’s not excessive, but it does focus more on style than substance – take the creative but unnecessary lawnmower suicide as example – that shows Shyamalan enjoys playing with gore. Is it needed? I don’t think so, since the theme of the film expresses an environmentally-friendly view rather than a more exploitative topic, but does it add tone and a growth to Shyamalan as a director? Sure!
But it’s the intensity of the film that holds the viewer, quickly whipping through humanity in the northeast. A few unrealistic observations aside, The Happening is surprisingly straightforward for the normally complex stories that the director pens, but instead of dumbing down the entirety of the movie, it’s a boon, allowing for Shyamalan to skip all of the hassle of explaining a twist that may or may not be more exciting.
But I can see why some viewers took a disliking to the film. The lackluster conclusion is a bummer, not only because it gives a less pleasing outlook on humanity’s goodness, but also because its resolution is not as epic or suspenseful as its prelude. The problem is not that the conclusion is necessarily bad – it makes sense in regards to the subject matter – but that the film builds up so well that it can’t be satisfactorily resolved. What ends up happening is that it feels like Shyamalan dropped the ball; one attributes their disappointment with the ending, a “that’s all!?” feeling, to the idea that Shyamalan could not come up with a better ending, ultimately ending with whatever seemed appropriate. Logically, in my opinion, the movie ended just where it needed to, because it said and did what it set out to do; as entertainment, on the other hand, The Happening falls flat with a climax that is stale and stuffy compared to the preceding cinema.
Even though The Happening displays a lot of what’s gotten Shyamalan where he is today, most noticeably in the more frightening scenes, there’s still a lot of freshness in what the director brings to the film. With an intriguing and compelling script, the film has a lot to enjoy. Where it fails, it fails with a grace that’s missing within many other movies in the genre, and contrary to the majority, I’m excited for Shyamalan’s next foray into horror. Leave your expectations in the DVD case and allow yourself a visually stunning and educational experience – and for God’s sake, don’t hope for The Sixth Sense part II. You’re only deluding yourself.