Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan, but few can question the impact that he’s had over the past ten years in the genre of suspense films. I’m not even that big a fan of The Sixth Sense, but rarely will you come across a person who has seen the film and who doesn’t have some polarizing reaction to the film. Sadly, the most common reaction I come across are from people who want to debate when they ‘figured out’ the big reveal of the movie. Ironically, it’s this unfortunate angle that has Shyamalan painted in a corner. He followed up TSS with Unbreakable, and then my favorite Night movie, Signs. Although The Village received a lukewarm reception, I feel as if people are really missing the most entertaining aspect of an M. Night Shyamalan film. While most people are trying to play mental chess with the movie and searching for clues and answers, the best part of these films, regardless of how clever (or not) the ending may be is the suspense that he’s able to generate. And while The Happening is probably one of his weakest films plot-wise, it manages to keep it’s audience engaged and in suspense from the opening credits until the closing curtain
The Happening stars Mark Wahlberg as a New York high school science teacher who, along with the rest of the world, learns that there has been a supposed “chemical terrorist attack” in Central Park. Wahlberg’s character (who’s name is Elliot Moore, but the fact that I had to look it up on imdb.com should tell you how memorable it was) along with his wife and teaching colleague (played by John Leguizamo) decide to make their way as far from the Northeast (where the ‘attacks’ seem to be concentrated) are taking place. And honestly, this is all you need to know to understand what you’re getting into. To tell anything more would be to ruin the best (and only redeeming) part of the film – the discovery.
The Happening is very weakly acted. I believe in Mark Wahlberg’s acting ability and it really isn’t showcased well here. Even worse are the performances turned in by his wife (played horribly by Zooey Deschanel) and Leguizamo’s daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez.) I know it’s horrible to say, but it’s the truth. Even Leguizamo himself doesn’t turn in a particularly good performance. (Could it be Night’s directing?) I’ve been known to forgive less-than-stellar performances if the film has other redeeming characteristics. And since there are really not many here, their bad acting sticks out.
Without discussing the details of the plot, I will say that while I found Night’s past films The Village and Signs to be both compelling stories and somewhat plausible (if one could stretch their mind a bit), I thought that the story in The Happening was incredibly irrational. It’s really unfortunate – I had given Night a tremendous amount of credit for creating films with supernatural elements, yet finding a way to do so with a uncanny amount of believability. (In Signs, I believed, and I still believe, that this is the way that folks would react to such a strange event.) None of that is true of The Happening. Whatever angle you’re coming from (scientifically-minded, lover of suspense films, looking for a fresh experience, etc.) you’ll be insulted by the development of this plot and unbelievable dissatisfied with how it closes. Speaking of the ending…
As much as I want to pity Night for having made a film with such an incredible ending as he did in TSS, where he can’t possibly live up to the expectations of making another shocking, chilling, and fulfilling ending, I simply can’t. Perhaps if he didn’t wait until the last five minutes of the film to reveal a key piece to our understanding, we wouldn’t dump on him so bad for having made such a weak one. But I do wonder whether he’d manage to keep us in such suspense if he revealed too much. Regardless, I heard a chorus of moans when his credit went up signaling the end of the film (and this, from an opening night crowd on a weekday night).
So you might ask if there are any redeeming qualities within The Happening. And as I mentioned at the top,there is one thing that you can always count on from Night – suspense. I can’t be too upset at having spent $10 to see this film, because the truth is that I was entertained. I laughed. I jumped a bit. And while I had big problems with the plausibility of the plot, I must say that the ride was pretty fulfilling. The plot is completely unpredictable in almost every way and, regardless of how unfulfilled you’ll leave it, you would have to suffer from a pretty bad case of ADD.
A lot is made of the fact that The Happening is Night’s ‘first R-rated film!’ and I’m sorry to kill the joy, but there’s not much to earn this film an R-rating. The rating could have easily been moved to PG if certain scenes had been cut differently. The scenes that probably pushed up the rating aren’t even done to good effect. They don’t push the story any and they don’t create any additional sense of suspense. They’re just…there.
The Happening runs for about an hour and a half – and that’s good considering the fact that there isn’t much ‘happening’ here. There are better ways to spend your $10 this summer. If you simply want a good suspenseful ride with absolutely no need for a digestible, well thought out reveal, then this is your movie. After Lady In the Water and now this film, I certainly hope it gets better from here. I’m losing faith, Night.