A plague of grisly suicides strikes the East Coast of the United States, in what appears to be a terrorist attack. Science teacher Elliott (Wahlberg), his wife, Alma (Deschanel), his friend Julian (Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Sanchez) flee the contaminated area and gradually come to understand the true cause of the disaster.
Back in 2006, M. Night Shyamalan made an American Express ad. A year on, and he’s shot another advertisement, this time for environmentalism. The Happening may be longer than a conventional commercial but the levels of drama and plotting remain pretty much the same. For all Shyamalan’s noble intentions, one brief flurry of contaminated air and his latest creation is scattered to the wind.
Rumour has it that the studio thought the early drafts of Shyamalan’s screenplay a little, well, drafty, and that they asked him to rustle up bigger scares. The result is his first R-rated film, which, oddly enough, is also his least unnerving. For his monster in the woods, he turns to the woods themselves, harnessing the murderous potential of that meanest of mothers, Mother Nature, and unleashing her fury upon us via an airborne chemical assault.
The opening scenes in and around New York’s Central Park are unsettling - audiences may be wary of building sites when they wander home - but once the film sweeps into the lush Pennsylvanian countryside, the shocks dissipate. This is not a landscape that makes us feel uneasy. And unlike in, say, The Birds, nature remains a strangely intangible foe.
As with his last two outings, Shyamalan again asks much of his audience in requiring us to overlook the slim narrative thread. But in contrast to The Village and Lady In The Water, he does not offer us any incentive to invest in his flimsy tale. The director no doubt hopes that we’d follow his lead’s lead - Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a man of science, but he sees God in the numbers, heaven in the spaces.
It is a lofty, honourable ideal but Wahlberg gives us no reason to believe. In searching for his inner child, he seems to find only a poor representation of his outer one. Deschanel fares better - as the more sceptical of the two, she is not burdened with Wahlberg’s poorly crafted romanticism. Both are burdened with an appalling script, and appear to have been directed into a hyper-stylised type of 1950s B-movie acting that comically reduces the tension. Many believe that Shyamalan is a better director than writer. On this evidence it’s too close to call.
A disappointingly slight offering from a filmmaker that we know is capable of so much more. Shyamalan says that The Happening was his easiest film to shoot. Sadly, it shows.