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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

The Happening

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"THE HAPPENING" - SHYAMALAN FAILS TO MAKE IT HAPPEN


Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has yet to achieve the same critical and box office success he so deservedly received from his breakout film, The Sixth Sense. I, for one, was blown away by his storytelling and filmmaking technique. Here was a young, brilliant filmmaker who burst onto the scene and made an indelible mark in the motion picture industry by re-inventing the horror genre. But now, after subsequent efforts that have failed to live up to high expectations, the industry and his fans are throwing harsh criticism at Shyamalan, saying he reached his peak with The Sixth Sense and, ever since, has been on a steady downward spiral.

Shyamalan’s second film, Unbreakable, was an interesting, decent follow-up after the Sixth Sense but didn’t come close to hitting the mark. Signs attracted UFO and sci fi enthusiasts who were led into the theatre under the assumption the movie would delve into the mystery of crop circles. So audiences were disappointed, and I for one, was pissed off at being a victim of the old bait and switch routine having to sit through what was basically an alien horror flick. The Village was yet another letdown, an updated rip-off of an old Twilight Zone episode. In my opinion, Lady in the Water, however, did not deserve the despicable reviews. After initially disliking it, I thought it over and realized, if viewed as what it was meant to be; strictly a fairy tale, it was imaginative, but not his best work.

Shyamalan is recognized by the way he frames scenes, builds tension, and creates an atmosphere of fear, but audiences are looking for a splendid payoff and that surprise, gotcha twist at the end, considered a signature of his craft. He spoiled us from the get go with the Sixth Sense so anything less than that reward is a disappointment.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s latest release, The Happening won’t win him any new fans as it adds up to be one more failure to his growing film repertoire. As for that surprise twist, there simply isn’t one, although there are a few questions left unanswered by the time the credits roll at the end.

In a recent interview the writer/director said all of his movies are about the fear of the unknown. This go round he tries to tap into that fear by going with an end of the world, gloom and doom scenario that revolves around a deadly airborne neuro toxin threatening to wipe out humankind.

Starting in New York City’s Central Park and rapidly sweeping through the Northeast region of the U.S., an unseen threat is causing people to stop frozen in their tracks and becoming disoriented before finding some sort of horrific way to commit suicide. The story follows the point of view of a troubled married couple, Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), as they embark on a journey of survival through the secluded Pennsylvania countryside in hopes of finding a safe refuge from the invisible enemy. Joining them for a short time is Elliot’s best friend and colleague, math teacher Julian (a wasted John Leguizamo) and his eight year old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) who is left in the care of the couple when he decides to leave and search for his wife.

At first, everyone assumes the strange deadly occurrences are the result of a terrorist attack. But of course, leave it to some words of wisdom by an old hippie (Frank Collison) that Elliott encounters who tells him plants are sending out a chemical attack to humans. Going one step further, Elliott comes to the conclusion that groups of people set off the release of toxic airborne chemicals from trees, plants and grass. Never mind that part of the scenario is inconsistent and doesn’t hold up as proven when we witness a crazy old lady (Broadway and TV veteran Betty Buckley who is laughingly over the top), all by her lonesome and more whacked out then before, going head first through a glass window.

So what else is happening? While the acts of self destruction are perceived as gory, much is left to the imagination. A continual sense of paranoia is present, but as a thriller, it fails to deliver the heart pounding scares. Blustering winds, fiercely swaying grass and tree leaves don’t do it for conjuring up the required panic or terror. In the acting department, Wahlberg and Deschanel are competent as an attractive couple on the verge of separation who are brought closer together when the going gets rough. No fault of their own, I blame Shyamalan for any mis-direction or poorly scripted dialogue on the actors’ part.

As a cautionary tale in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the potential for a good and maybe great film is there but the problem with the Happening is in Shyamalan’s flawed story and weak execution. The idea of the ecosystem striking back at humankind might hit a chord with environmentalists, but for the rest of the audience, in all of its 90 minutes, there aren’t enough thrills and chills or much happening.