"What if the trees and plants were communicating and working together?"
This is one of many lines in the obnoxiously bad "The Happening", the newest low point in writer- producer- director M. Night Shyamalan's descent into obscurity. Filled with improbable lines of laughable dialogue, delivered by actors giving the worst performances of their careers, Shyamalan manages to create a film devoid of any suspense or horror - the actors star at the sky and watch the wind blow leaves at several key moments – watch out, the wind might get you!
People walking through Central Park stop suddenly. Some of them start to kill themselves in highly unusual ways. Construction workers at a sight near Central Park start walking off the job, literally, plunging to their deaths. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is trying to get his students to come up with theories about why all of the world's bees are disappearing. Then, the principal calls the teachers together and informs him about the possible terrorist attack in Central Park. They send the students home. Soon, Elliot and his friend, Julian (John Leguizamo), his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) have joined Elliot's girlfriend, Alma (Zooey Deschanel) on a train out of Philadelphia. They are going to Julian's mom's house in the country, to wait out the terrorist attacks. And a train is apparently the fastest mode of transportation out of the city. People on the train begin to get texts and photos of a similar event happening in a park in Philadelphia. Elliot begins to wonder if the problem is more widespread. When the train stops ('We have lost contact." "With who?" "With everyone." Bum, bum, bum, bum.) they set out on foot and Elliot begins to suspect other forces, other 'natural' forces might be at work.
So, "The Happening" is shockingly bad. Poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted and boring. Nothing about this film works. I looked at some comments on IMDB.com and there is now a thread of discussion claiming this film is supposed to be intentionally bad. Huh? While that might be an excuse for all of the Adam Sandler films the public has been subjected to, but in this case, I don't buy it. Shyamalan has made some very successful reinterpretations of B movie standards, but he has never intentionally tried to make a bad film. Although this would explain Mark Wahlberg's dreadful performance in which every line of dialogue is posited as a question, I still don't buy it. I think after his falling out with Touchstone Pictures and the disastrous critical and financial performance of "Lady in the Water", Shyamalan was probably given a very limited budget with which to make this film. And it shows. On every frame of film.
A lot of the promotion for this film makes a big deal about this being Shyamalan's first 'R' rated film. For the life of me, I can't figure out why it is rated R. There is nothing particularly gory in it. The few times we see people kill themselves, because they have been overtaken by the 'virus', the scenes are pretty straight forward and free of blood and gore. In most cases, the camera doesn't even show the action. And when the 'villain' or 'force' behind the events are trees and grass, it is difficult to make these things appear menacing. I have expected a shot of a daisy with fangs and menacing eyes to pop up at one point, but thankfully, the director saved us from this moment of hilarity.
The whole set-up for any suspense Shyamalan wants to deliver is tenuous at best. Once they get off the train, and Elliot begins to piece things together (and this seems to take a long time) they start to run from the wind. Yes, the wind. There are numerous shots of a group of people walking through a field. Suddenly, they stop and Elliot turns to look behind them. The wind begins blowing through trees and the long grass and he shouts "Run". Now, how scary did this sound to you? Imagine actually watching it on the big screen. It's even less exciting and less scary.
A lot of the story is told through 'news bites' various characters watch on television or cell phones. This is just sloppy story telling. At one point, a woman on the train yells and people gather around her. "Someone just shot this at the Philadelphia Zoo" and shows a clip to the viewers. Since the character has no connection to the story, and the story itself has moved from Philadelphia, this scene really serves no purpose except to provide a quick shock. But it looks sooooo fake. Late in the film, a television is broadcasting an interview with some random scientist who posits a theory about the cause of the event, and how long he thinks it will last. As we watch this interview, he appears to be one of the many whack jobs who appear on new programs when disasters happen. But strangely, Shyamalan is giving us a clue here. A real overt clue, but a clue nonetheless.
The acting in "The Happening" is shockingly bad. Mark Wahlberg, who is usually dependably good, delivers every line as though it is a question. "What if the plants and trees are communicating?" "What happened?" "You had tiramisu together?" (Not kidding. That is an actual line of dialogue.) "Maybe we should take a train to the country?" His performance is simply embarrassing because he has given such better performances in films like "Four Brothers", "Undefeated" and "The Departed". He was even better in "Signs", one of Shyamalan's better films. When Wahlberg initially made the transition from Rapper – Underwear model to actor, there were many skeptics who didn't believe he could make the transition to movie star. But he erased these doubts by turning in one good performance after another. Now, with "The Happening", he turns in a performance that would have been more forgivable at the beginning of his career.
Throughout the film, Elliot seems to work out what is happening, although very slowly. He asks questions throughout, apparently rhetorical questions because he never gets any answers from anyone. But this is his way of thinking through the problem. As the crisis continues to evolve, Elliot figures things out by asking still more questions. But does he really understand what is going on? Someone who asks this many questions probably isn't picking up on everything.
Zooey Deschanel has trouble with her character as well. I never had any indication she was even remotely attracted to Wahlberg's Elliot. Alma is dealing with some guilt as they begin this journey, and the main thrust of this storyline is revealed through a shot of text on her cell phone. God forbid she should have to act and talk about it first. But when Elliot finds out about it, he simply stares at her with a blank expression on his face, the same blank expression he has throughout most of the film, and doesn't feel the need to show any emotion.
John Leguizamo plays Julian, Elliot's friend and a math teacher at the same school. His lines are delivered in the same shockingly bad, high school play method Wahlberg uses.
Betty Buckley, the step mom on TV's "Eight is Enough" and a Broadway star pops up in a strange cameo. Her character is all over the place and the role is simply laughable rather than menacing.
And what is even worse is that the film would conceivably be a horror film about our destruction of the planet. Yet, this is barely mentioned. In the end, the film simply ends because the event has ended. We see no evidence of people correcting their bad behavior, so what is the message? Our planet is being polluted and will only take so much before fighting back. But if you can wait out the planet's punishment, things will return to normal. How is this weak message going to prompt anyone to act?
Of course, much of the blame for these performances has to lie at Shyamalan's feet. It seems like everyone was given one take for their line and this take made it into the final cut. Was this film made on a limited budget? Money certainly wasn't spent on the special effects (a large wind machine costs how much exactly?) so where did it all go?
But more importantly, where has the skill Shyamalan once displayed with such interesting, well-made films like "The Sixth Sense", "Unbreakable" and "Signs" gone? Maybe the wind, plants and trees are conspiring to steal him of his skill as punishment for this terrible film.
What a waste of time. And resources. How much of this film can be recycled? Should we worry about this film trying to exact its revenge on us? No, it already has.