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The Happening (15)

Rachel Winterbottom finds out what’s occurring in M Night Shyamalan’s latest flop

Written by . Published on June 20th 2008.

The Happening (15)

'There appears to be an event occurring,' an innocent bystander announces in M Night Shyamalan’s latest outing as writer/director/producer, managing to sum up the whole plot in one cryptic line.

"The film doesn’t disappoint on guilty thrills; however apathetic and lifeless these affected humans appear, they are no less inventive with their own deaths."

The same cryptic line gets repeated in one form or another throughout the majority of the film – and you really do want to discover what ‘The Happening’ is. But will an explanation be offered? Well, yes actually – about a third of the way in. It leaves you wondering if this is what The Sixth Sense would have been like if Bruce Willis’s character had discovered he was dead part way through and spent the rest of the film in a spiral of depression.

Up until the revelation, the film does deliver genuine suspense along with the odd coil of tension. It begins in Central Park at 8.33am exactly, when people stop whatever it is they’re doing then walk backwards a few steps before reaching for the nearest sharp object and, for no apparent reason at all, killing themselves with indifferent brutality. These incidents begin to spread until the whole of North East America is affected – but just what is causing this phenomenon? And why isn’t it happening anywhere else?

These are questions that science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife, Alma (the wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel), find themselves having to answer. They and their friend’s daughter, Jess (played well by Ashlyn Sanchez), go on the run from whatever it is to get to wherever it isn’t. Not an easy task once they find out what ‘it’ actually is.

As concepts go, it’s simple but intriguing. The film doesn’t disappoint on guilty thrills; however apathetic and lifeless these affected humans appear, they are no less inventive with their own deaths. There are mass-hangings, people eaten by lions, and those who lie calmly in wait for a tractor to reach their bit of grass – it’s all horrifically absorbing.

There’s room, as ever in a Shyamalan, for a bit of humour too. Mostly unintentional. Wahlberg spends the film trying to match Deschanel’s beautiful but gormless stare, routinely gazing off into the distance and running around the countryside like a clownish parody of himself. Having said that, he did provide some of the most entertaining lines, and most of them were aptly handled.

As is Shyamalan’s style, there are a few red herrings in the mix – a mad-lady here, a creaking swing there – but they don’t add anything to the film apart from empty promises. With none of these being fulfilled, they only serve to highlight what the film could have been, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

Another pitfall, and a pretty big one at that, is the relationship between the two leads. Wahlberg and Deschanel have no real spark between them so when Shyamalan attempts to make their marriage a pivotal part of the finale, the supposedly hard-hitting emotional climax leaves you less than satisfied.

It's a film you want more from in several ways – further development of the excellent concept, more of the underused John Lequizamo (here playing Jess’s father, Julian) and much, much more for your money.

It really is unfortunate, in the least smug sense of the word, that the only thing happening in M Night Shyamalan’s universe is a steady decline in quality. He started on a high with The Sixth Sense and then Unbreakable and even almost got there with Signs (until it turned out that aliens with an extreme allergy to water had tried to invade a planet composed of over 70 per cent of the stuff), but now his talent seems to be petering out. He can still build suspense like a pro, but without anything to build to, it feels like a wasted journey. The Happening is a high concept film that is badly in want of something...anything...to happen.

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whatJune 20th 2008.

Most of the entertaining lines were 'aptly handled'? Really Rachel?

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