Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan back in the dark days when he was making one stinker after another, The Happening has too many dull stretches to be a proper good bad movie. Still, I find Shyamalan’s bad movies fascinating in the same way I find Star Wars prequels and films like Jupiter Ascending weirdly fascinating. Say what you want about them, but they’re not your generic bad movies and they bear the individual stamp of their creators.
The Happening is a disaster movie with the parallels to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and, maybe more obscurely, The Poison Belt, a novella by Arthur Conan Doyle. Except that, instead of aliens or deadly ether, it’s Shyamalan’s attempt at making a survival story about… trees and plants.
Sorry, not scary.
The movie begins with a wave of grisly suicides striking the East Coast of the USA, as people succumb to the toxic airbourne agent that makes them at first freeze and then take their own lives with whatever’s handy around (including a pack of lions at the zoo and a lawnmower). Elliott (Mark Wahlberg), a science teacher, and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) attempt to flee the contaminated area with Elliott’s friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter. At first the calamity is assumed to be a terrorist attack, but then it gradually dawns on Elliott that the entire thing is a work of Mother Nature, more specifically the trees. Heavy-handed environmental message anyone?
There’s trademark stilted Shyamalan dialogue that sounds like nothing a normal person would utter, but the best-worst thing about the movie is Mark Wahlberg’s bizarre performance. I really wasn’t sure what he was aiming for: childlike and whimsical with the high-pitched sing-song delivery? Befuddled? Both? In any case, the scene where Elliott asks a potted plant if it would be ok for them to use the bathroom is up there with “I hate sand” in terms of sheer anti-genius. Zooey Deschanel is blank and stranded in her role; there’s some boring interpersonal drama about Alma and Elliott’s troubled marriage clogging up the screen where some more inspired badness would have been appreciated. Betty Buckley, who was put to much better use in Split, is wasted here in a bit part of a deranged old recluse who gives sorta-refuge to our heroes.
There are a few moments in the film when you’re reminded that Shyamalan is no simple hack and knows how to create a genuinely tense moment and execute a good jump scare. Mostly however I was giggling at the attempts to make the idyllic Pennsylvanian landscape terrifying… through the power of the wind and rustling leaves! Nope, it’s pretty much impossible to make an invisible toxin visually scary. This is one of those movies whose very concept is so misguided it’s impossible to see how it could have been saved from idiocy.