Why do people look to science for answers as if it was a religion? What if someone or something could cause mankind to confront its ecological devastation? What if someone or something could cause mankind to confront its own existential terror?
These are just some of the interesting questions that the premise of The Happening could have been used to explore. That it in general goes nowhere, and ultimately is a schmaltzy affirmation of one not-particularly-interesting couple’s strained relationship is unavoidably at the feet of writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan. I am one of the few people who defended Lady in the Water, Night’s generally-reviled last movie, and I desperately wanted The Happening to be the movie that silenced his critics and rebooted his career. I believe M. Night still has a ton of interesting movies left to make but I’m worried after this one, no one will give him the money to make them.
As Nikki Finke said, more people are reviewing M. Night than his movie, so back to the story.
I did enjoy Frank Collison, as a bemused plant nursery owner and Jeremy Strong as a spastic Army MP. These are the sort of interesting M. Night supporting characters that you wish the movie spent more time with — more time than the milquetoast leads. Let’s face it, Mark Wahlberg is two different actors. One is a brilliant scene-stealer (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees); the other is a sometimes bland, sometimes genuinely awful wooden-plank interpreter. Unfortunately it is the ‘Two-by-four School of Drama’ Wahlberg on the billing here.
Not that M. Night doesn’t give him and everyone else un-actable material. I feel worst for Leguizamo, who tries his level best to sell us that he would reasonably abandon his daughter to go look for his wife in a city he knows has been affected by the neurotoxin.
Or is it a neurotoxin? For a movie that makes so much of uncertainty, it does a rather pitiful job of dramatizing it. Uncertainty is not really the realm of this kind of movie, and by that I mean the M. Night Shyamalan thriller. That there is no twist ending to The Happening does not feel like him breaking the mold. It feels like the mold breaking him.
If I was to dramatize this uncertainty, I would’ve never repeated the same theory in the movie twice (the movie settles on the notion that plants are attacking ever-smaller clumps of people rather abruptly). Let everyone come to the science teacher for answers and force him to admit that he simply lacks the data to determine what is going on. Or better yet, have him discover empirically what is going on and try to warn the rest of the world, only to have them or him die before it is too late. That’s an ending.
Instead we are treated to the slow march of the two leads across a field towards each other to swelling strings, the sort of lovers cliche that has been repeatedly parodied. The same march is echoed in a coda, that has the leads embracing over adding more people to the supposedly-overpopulated world.
I think M. Night meant for this to be a story of a disease that forces people to isolate themselves that is overcome by the love that brings two people (and their dead friend’s daughter) together. This would explain introducing a mad hermit woman so late in the movie. The problem is, there is too much in the movie that backpedals against this theme. (For example, the isolated hermit woman succumbs to the disease — gets happeninged, happenates herself?) Some day, some European will take this wonderful premise of worldwide suicide and spin it into a fable of the existential terror that lurks within the human heart. M. Night himself might’ve done this, was he not so isolated from constructive criticism.