THE HAPPENING can be most charitably described as clumsy and moribund. Clumsy in the way the premise of how exactly it is that nature is taking its revenge on humankind is presented, and moribund in its determined hushed and whispering tone. Now, the hushed whispering tone is very effective in a well done mood piece. Alas, this is not a well done mood piece. It is, as touted by all the ads, writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated film, and what gives it the R rating does not have the sensibility of an artist expressing himself or an idea. It has the sensibility of a filmmaker trying to increase his audience by upping the gore. The shots of a hair ornament piercing a major blood vessel in the neck, or of a zoo attendant offering his arm up to a lion has a perfunctory feel that renders the blood flow and dismemberment oddly dull, not terrifying. Shyamalan does better with the tiny moments of pure eeriness. The shock of an orchard of hanged suicides or a fall of construction workers littering the ground like so many ripe plums done in absolute silence is visceral. There are, further alas, far too few of those moments and far too many of people looking on as grass waves in the wind.
It all begins with honeybees. After the first bout of peculiar, suicidal behavior in New York, the action shifts to a high school classroom in Philadelphia (all Shyamalan’s films take place there), where science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg who not ONCE takes off his shirt) is leading a class discussion about why the honeybees are disappearing. Theories are proposed, but the real reason, Elliot intones solemnly, is that it’s an act of nature and the reason might never be known for certain. Thus is the audience set up for what is to come. And thus is Shyamalan is let off the hook of having to explain the why of what is to come while throwing out tidbits of how in a scattershot fashion that includes red tides, primordial bacteria, nuclear power plants, and an eccentric nurseryman with a penchant for hot dogs and talking to the denizens of his green house.
There were many opportunities missed here to consider the behavior of mobs in the face of the big scary unknown and with 90 minutes, it’s surprising that Shyamalan didn’t take advantage of them as tidily as Rod Serling and company did with 30 or 60 minutes back in the day on “The Twilight Zone”. There were opportunities missed here to terrify an audience in the face of the big scary unknown the way Alfred Hitchcock did with THE BIRDS. Instead of wise observations or taut suspense, there is a shambling somnambulant film lurching about while actors intone clunky dialogue while behaving as though their pulse rate was somewhere only slightly above comatose. Even the wondrously ironic Zooey Deschanel as Elliot’s disaffected wife, and the wondrously edgy John Leguizamo as Elliot’s teacher pal are rendered vanilla here, which begs the question, why cast such vivid character actors and not use them? The exception is Betty Buckley, who breaks the spell with a raspy performance as a hermitess in which she babbles like a razor blade on a blackboard.
With THE HAPPENING, perhaps Shyamalan’s career has finally petered out and that’s a shame. WIDE AWAKE was a perfectly enchanting film about coming to terms with the real world without losing faith, THE SIXTH SENSE was the perfect bait-and-switch entertainment, and they both had heart. THE HAPPENING is a cold pastiche, neither bloody enough to attract the crowd that hankers for that sort of thing, nor smart enough to attract the crowd that hankers for that.