Talking Movies

June 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Happening

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals the hesitant summer movie that saw Shymalan made a laughing stock of by American film critics.

Writer/director M Night Shyamalan’s last film Lady in the Water featured a pessimistic film critic as one of its minor characters. He got eaten by a wolf. The atmosphere at press screenings of The Happening could best be described as packs of wolves waiting to eat an optimistic film director…

Mark Wahlberg stars as high-school science teacher Elliot Moore who flees Philadelphia for the safety of the Pennsylvania countryside after New York City is devastated by a suicide epidemic triggered by a chemical attack on Central Park. The horrors that occur once the chemical flicks the self-preservation switch in the brain are the best realised sequences in this film and provide great suspense as the characters try to evade the rapidly spreading air-borne toxin. Running with Elliot are his distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguiazmo) and Julian’s young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Shyamalan was severely burned by the critical and commercial disaster of Lady in the Water. The criticism, in particular, was far harsher than was deserved but it is obvious that it has rattled his confidence. As a devoted Shyamalan fan it grieves me to say that The Happening is almost a film which needs to be watched on DVD because there are enough bad lines to quickly turn cinema audiences hostile, especially after being primed by some American critics to laugh at the whole endeavour.

Lady in the Water was directed by a supremely confident man, nobody with a fragile ego would have extended such a slight narrative to feature length. The Happening, though, bears the hallmarks of a man who is not confident of his basic material. Shyamalan the visual stylist is still present and correct but Shyamalan the writer is all over the place. Contrast the failing marriages in Unbreakable and The Happening and you will see a level of emotional maturity in the scenes between Bruce Willis and Robin Wright that evaporates when it comes to Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Previously Shymalan’s actors riffed off of little hints in the script but now they look lost, as if they’re not sure the writer himself believes these characters.

There are superb sequences in this film. A long take of a gun being used by person after person to blow their brains out is stylish and horrific. At his best Shyamalan approaches Hitchcock’s The Birds by making us scared of trees and the wind itself as paranoia escalates as to the reason behind the spreading plague. Is it chemical weapons or something simpler yet even more terrifying? At his worst Shyamalan provides wincingly bad dialogue and has no earthly notion how to use cult hero Deschanel. There is no gimmicky twist but the final scene is a nice indictment of complacency towards global problems. Worth seeing, just maybe not in theatres…

3/5

Blog at WordPress.com.