The Happening

Movies Reviews M. Night Shyamalan
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The Happening

Release Date: June 13
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez
Studio/Run Time: Twentieth Century Fox, 91 mins.

The Sixth Sense may be clever, but its coattails are only so long, and even if your tolerance for New Age-y commentary is greater than mine, you must admit that M. Night Shyamalan’s bag of tricks is looking pretty light. After tarnishing his star with increasingly risible fantasies, Shyamalan is circling back with The Happening, a film that aims to recreate the scary jolts of The Sixth Sense and the mysterious chills of Signs, but even with some well engineered creep-effects in the first few minutes, it's hard to take such a hokey story and such rotten dialogue seriously on any level, even as summer popcorn entertainment.

One day people in New York's Central Park spontaneously—and creatively—commit suicide. Terrorists may have released chemicals that block a person's natural suicide inhibitors, so everyone flees the city. Unfortunately, the problem is spreading.

A high school science teacher and his wife played by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel traipse across rural Pennsylvania fleeing the invisible menace, and soon they’re slaloming through so many dead people they’re not sure which way to run. The suicidal set pieces tick at regular intervals, so you can set your watch by old people beating their heads into bricks, drivers ramming cars into trees, and men using lawn equipment inappropriately.

Shyamalan has gone to the well to come up with dozens of inventive suicides, and if he’d embrace his inner (increasingly outer) B-movie director, he might come up with a pointless and efficient creep-out like The Ruins. But his pop philosophy and lofty thoughts rear their trite heads when the science teacher posits theories on what's happening. Because of his book smarts, when he says the plants might be angry, the people in his dwindling group consider the prospect. When he says to run ahead of the wind, people scamper. ("Here it comes!" he yells.)

One conclusion a viewer could draw is that the invisible gas—or pollen or radiation or whatever—makes some people commit suicide but turns others into simple idiots. The only problem with that theory is that Shyamalan gives every indication that we too are supposed to accept these crackpot theories and clumsy plot turns, to mull them as metaphors, and to ponder our world in light of their vague wisdom. There’s a long tradition of receiving messages from burning bushes, but jiggling bushes are not to be trusted, and neither are filmmakers who ask us to shiver in their leafy midst.

Forced to choose a favorite bit, I'd go with the part where a slit develops in a Jeep’s canvas roof. The occupants are speeding away from the suicide-inducing fumes, but, oh boy, there's a gash in the roof, highlighted with a slow zoom, a musical swell, and a cut to John Leguizamo’s worried face.

How the slit got there is anybody's guess, but it's an obvious problem, because—as we all know—absent a breach in its hull, a Jeep, like a script by M. Night Shyamalan, is absolutely airtight.

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