Remember the twist in The Sixth Sense? It was one of the best surprises in recent movie memory. Ever since little Haley Joel Osment uttered those four words that sent chills down audience’s spines—“I see dead people”—director M. Night Shyamalan has been trying unsuccessfully to recreate that kind of jolt for his audience. His subsequent films, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and The Lady in the Water have all had their moments, but none have become pop culture touchstones in the way that The Sixth Sense has.
The trailer for his latest film, The Happening, is a grabber. Without giving away any details it elegantly sets up the premise that something catastrophic has happened, but if it isn’t a terrorist attack, what is it? It gave me hope that M. Night was back on track.
Starring Mark Walhberg as science teacher Elliot Moore, The Happening sees him, his estranged wife (Zooey Deschanel) and the eight year old daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) of a friend running for their lives after a strange pandemic spreads through the American Northeast. The mysterious disease causes loss of speech, physical stupefaction and suicide, usually by violent and very unpleasant means. Will they survive as the devastation swells?
Will there be a twist ending? Not since Chubby Checker has one man been so closely associated with “the twist.”
Will Elliot Moore wake up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette and realize that it was all just a crazy dream?
And most importantly, will M. Night Shyamalan finally once again give audiences the shock they expect from his movies?
The answer to that last question, sadly is no. The biggest shock in The Happening is how ineptly made it is. Since his first big hit it seems as though M. Night has been hemorrhaging the good filmmaking sense he showed on that film, diminishing his talent with each new project.
For much of The Happening I thought perhaps he was making a tribute to the b-movies of the 1950s, complete with ridiculous dialogue, crazy science and wooden acting. I rejected that theory when I thought back to those movies and remembered that while they might not have been Citizen Kane, at least they were entertaining. The Happening’s main achievement is to figure out increasingly gruesome and strange ways for people to off themselves.
Even then, some of the methods of death raised hoots of derision from the audience I saw it with. When a woman watching a video of a man feeding himself to a pride of lions at a zoo says in horror, “Mother of God, what kind of terrorists are these?” it caused a ripple of laughter that passed through the entire theatre.
Even the film’s eco message—we better start taking better care of the environment or Mother Nature might make us jump in front of a haymaker and die a bloody and brutal death—is simplistic and underdeveloped. One can only hope that other upcoming green themed movies like The Swarm and James Cameron’s Avatar dig a little deeper.
Despite the rare flash of inspiration—a scene with a dead policeman’s revolver is intense and effective—The Happening just doesn’t deliver the goods. It’s doubly disappointing because it comes from someone whose talent once approached greatness, but as it is this is the worst movie by a major, mainstream director since Gigli and could be used in film schools as a lesson in how NOT to make a thriller.
The Happening raises just one more question: M. Night, what happened?