The Happening


Warning: Spoiler Alert

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few directors who asks his audience questions like, "Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles?" It's why some Christians feel a certain loyalty to him -- because his films acknowledge the reality of evil, the power of good, and the existence of a supernatural power. In Unbreakable, a man finds purpose in protecting the innocent. The Village testified to humans' inability to hide from evil. Signs told the story of an ex-pastor who regained his faith when "someone up there, watching out for them" saved his family.

The critics are less and less thrilled with Shyamalan, however; and I think they're right. Lady in the Water (at least the parts I hazily remember) lacked the artistic precision of Sixth Sense. The Happening is even worse.

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People walking through Central Park suddenly start muttering gibberish, freeze and then kill themselves. High school science teacher Elliot Moore (an earnest Mark Wahlberg) and his emotionally estranged wife Alma (the appropriately wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel) flee Philadelphia as the terror spreads from New York City throughout the north-east.

The hypotheses: Bio-terrorists have released a neurotoxin that removes people's inhibitions toward self-destruction, or plants now see humans as predators on the planet and are fighting back. (Guess which hypothesis is correct? Hint: This movie has no twist ending.)

The movie is grisly (rated R for violence), and it gets more nauseating as Shyamalan dreams up especially creative ways for people to off themselves -- piercing their necks with hair sticks, feeding themselves to lions, bashing their heads into windows. The climax - a scene where Wahlberg and Deschanel slowly cross a field of grass to die in each other's arms - is as embarrassing as the ending is deflating.

Shyamalan has already proved his deft use of symbolism and his ability to create a film with layers of meaning. But The Happening is simply, disappointingly glib. Critics have faulted Shyamalan for his occasionally grating moralism, but at least his earlier movies proffered some thoughtful insights into human nature. As The Plank's James Kirchick notes, The Happening just has one "morally appalling" premise: "The mere existence of the human race is a cause for great shame."


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