It’s become rather fashionable of late to criticize M. Night Shyamalan, and despite the indiscriminate nature of much of the bashing, it’s not that difficult to see why.
I, like many others, became an instant fan of Shyamalan with his breakout The Sixth Sense, and although I am in the distinct minority here, I loved Unbreakable as well. Signs had its share of cheese, but still managed to hit a lot of right notes. But something happened with The Village. The surprise ending shtick was getting old.
The more critics and audiences started to pay attention to Shyamalan, the more they realized just how pretentious this guy was. Watch an interview with him – he doesn’t try very hard to hide the fact that he thinks he’s awesome. After Lady in the Water, which has Shyamalan playing a character who is destined to write the book that will radically change the entire world, suspicions were confirmed. Now, I’ve never met the guy, but the megalomaniac label seems to apply at least a teensy bit.
So, with Shyamalan disillusionment having swept the nation, The Happening happens on the scene, with Twentieth Century Fox proclaiming loudly that it’s the first R-rated flick from this modern master of suspense.
As a side note, the R rating is nothing more than a publicity scam. Despite the filmmakers’ giddy assertions on one of the DVD featurettes that they “went for the hard R” this is a film that owes that rating solely to one or two scenes that barely pass snuff as graphic in this day and age.
The Happening successfully comes across as the B-movie that Shyamalan is aiming for (it’s similar to Signs in that regard,) but it’s based on a premise that is utterly ridiculous and deserves the scores of derision it’s already received.
This is a film that doesn’t depend on its actors much, so Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel don’t make much of an impression as Elliot and Alma, the couple with marital problems who are on the run from a mysterious “event” that’s causing people in the northeast U.S. to off themselves.
The mass suicide phenomenon provides Shyamalan with plenty of excuses to come up with creative self-inflicted deaths. It’s one of the few things he does reasonably well for much of the movie, although some, like a man being mauled to death by lions that looks like it was Monty Python-inspired, don’t come off as well.
For a large portion of the film, Shyamalan ratchets up the intensity and suspense quite capably. The middle act was certainly spooky enough to keep me engaged, and it’s a good thing, because taking even one step back to look at the action in the context Shyamalan has presented it in reveals the entire thing to be a farce. In the moment, The Happening manages to be relatively scary, but once you know how it’s going to end, it’s hard to care. Whether the premise is agenda-driven or just the product of a crappy idea doesn’t rally matter – either way, it’s still a crappy idea.
In comparison to his recent work, The Happening is refreshing because it is at least free of the idiosyncrasies that were utterly dripping off of Lady in the Water. For a good portion of the film, Shyamalan plays it as a straight suspense/horror flick, but then we get to the end where we realize what just happened.
Shyamalan has struck out again.
The DVD comes with a nice set of special features, including about an hour’s worth of featurettes that are high in production value. Most of these are fairly interesting, although the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle self-congratulatory nature of Shyamalan is annoying. Of the four deleted scenes, three are gorier versions of scenes already in the film. (In a different featurette, Shyamalan boasts of the original NC-17 rating the film got, as if to show just how audacious he is. Believe me, if that anecdote is true, these scenes were not the ones earning that rating.)
Probably the best moment on the special features comes on the gag reel where Wahlberg dares to question the mighty Shyamalan and pokes a nice hole through the point and plausibility of an entire scene. It’s really too bad he wasn’t there to do just that for the rest of the inconsistent script.