Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, Zooey Deschanel
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Distributed by Fox Home Entertainment
Had I written this review a week earlier I would have been more than prepared to declare The Happening the most unbelievable movie that wants to be taken seriously so far this year but then last week I saw Eagle Eye and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more preposterous film. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest will have to settle for a close second in the you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me department.
Something is happening in the Northeastern United States. People are killing themselves without explanation. Nobody knows exactly what is going on. Panic is setting in. Mild-mannered science teacher Mark Wahlberg and his constantly startled wife Zooey Deschanel (What was with her perpetual bug eyes?), along with math teacher friend John Leguizamo and his mostly mute daughter, and random others are amongst those trying to evacuate to someplace safe. But is there anyplace safe? And what’s behind it all.
I’m going to operate under the assumption that you’ve already heard what’s responsible for the suicides. If not, stop reading right now because I’m about to talk about it.
It’s the plants and the trees. We’ve been destroying the planet’s ecosystem and now they’ve decided to retaliate in the most Rube Goldberg manner possible. They can’t just unleash a gas that causes people that breathe it to instantly drop dead. No, instead it’s a multi-stage process that culminates with the victim casually going about an often outlandish means by which to commit suicide. It’s far-fetched, for sure, and at times it almost works. But then come the scenes of people trying to outrun the wind and in some cases, outsmart the wind. Someone needed to sit Shyamalan down and explain to him that a shot of an ordinary trees and plants or field of grass are not going to be creepy no matter what camera angle or ominous music you play over it.
I know it’s fashionable these days to beat up on Shyamalan and his unyielding sense of pretension. What’s sad is that it has become well deserved. Though nowhere near the ego-trip Lady in the Water was, I’d still love to know what’s come over the guy. He’s got good actors giving unconvincing performances – easily Wahlberg’s worst since Planet of the Apes – reciting dialogue that is too often embarrassingly bad. We’re besieged with inane discussions about the greatness of hot dogs, Leguizamo trying to use math riddles to calm down a terrified teenager, people generally behaving in the least credible manner possible, and let’s not forget Wahlberg comically begging for forgiveness from a house plant.
He’s also lost his grasp on subtlety. When your movie is about plants exterminating mankind as punishment for destroying the environment and you have characters walking past a billboard advertisement that reads “YOU DESERVE THIS” you come to appreciate the less preachy overtones of a Kirk Cameron movie. Even the scientist on the TV at the end explaining why what happened has happened practically turns into a raving lunatic going on about how we brought this upon ourselves.
What’s most frustrating about The Happening is that there are times when it works, especially early on. Somewhere behind Shyamalan’s uncontrollable high-mindedness lurks a good movie, at least a good b-movie. M. Night works overtime to evoke a “Twilight Zone” tone and a good deal of tension, almost pulling it off in the beginning. Ultimately his attempts at low-key chills lead to too many moments where there’s an overwhelming sense that nothing is happening and too many scenes that are meant to be eerie that only succeed in making you chortle because some of it borders on self-parody. Teetering between being well made, poorly made, somewhat dull, and downright stupid, it just isn’t enough of a good movie, a b-movie, or even a “so bad it’s funny” movie to recommend.
One scene for me typifies everything wrong with The Happening from a writing standpoint. Wahlberg and company find some people holed up inside an old house and go banging on the door begging to be let in. The never seen voices refuse to let them in out of fear that opening the door will let the gas in. The two sides get into a heated argument. The barrel of a shotgun pops out a hole in the shutters and opens fire. They won’t open the door out of fear of letting whatever’s in the air inside yet there are holes in their windows? This after it has been established that a mere sliver of an opening in anything is enough to let the toxin in. Come on, Mr. M. Night, you’re smarter than this.
On to the DVD extras …
There are four deleted scenes, two of which are merely extended versions of scenes in the film. The first and probably the most egregious omission from the movie is a scene Shyamalan admits was originally meant to be the opening explaining the whole backstory between Wahlberg and Deschanel’s characters. He argues we would learn everything we need to about them along the way so he chopped it out. I remember seeing this film in theaters this past June and it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized Wahlberg and Deschanel were supposed to be husband and wife. To listen to one particular excised conversation the two engage in about ice cream I’ve also come to the conclusion that when it comes to dialogue Shyamalan clearly fancies himself the Tarantino of the mundane. We also get a slightly bloodier version of the lion attack death. Just when I thought that scene was an unintentional howler I was treated to a deleted death scene of a violinist killing himself by swallowing his bow. You really have to see that one to appreciate the absurdity of it.
The first featurette is called The Hard Cut. Much has been made of this being Shyamalan’s first ever R-rated movie. So what? This rather eye-rolling featurette is all about how Shyamalan seems to think he’s made a hard R-rated movie. Even claiming the film was on the verge of getting an “X” for violence. If Shyamalan thinks his film is hard-R then he clearly hasn’t seen any R-rated horror films or war movies in the last ten years.
Then there’s I Hear You Whispering – A featurette dedicated entirely to the creepy Mrs. Jones character played by Betty Buckley who the protagonists encounter in the film’s third act. Sad that it does a better job explaining her character than the movie ever did.
Visions of the Happening is your typical behind-the-scenes, making-of featurette, and next up is A Day For Night is a six-minute M. Night-centric companion piece to the making-of focusing exclusively on the directing process; a camera crew follows Shyamalan around and eavesdrops on all his directorial decisions for one day of the shoot. Rather bland unless you’re into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and even then you probably won’t learn much. Lastly with Elements of a Scene we get a ten minute filmmaking anatomy lesson as to how they pulled off a car crash scene through the mixture of live action and CGI. Very technical stuff.
Things are then capped off with a gag reel that’s less a blooper reel and more a random collection of lighthearted moments on the set. Let’s just say there’s a good reason none of this played over the film’s closing credits and trailers for the Keanu Reeves cop film Street Kings and the Alexandre Aja horror flick Mirrors. They couldn’t even be bothered to include a trailer for The Happening.
As far as Blu-ray specific extras, all we get are two four-minute featurettes, Train Shooting and Forces Unseen, a digital copy for portable media devices, and a scene specific picture-in-picture option.
M. Night Shyamalan is a very talented filmmaker who has clearly allowed ego and self-indulgence to cloud his filmmaking and screenwriting judgment. I personally hope he can find his mojo and get back on track to making the quality films he’s clearly capable of. But The Happening … It just wasn’t happening for me.
One last thing: let the record show that even plant-life hates the French.
2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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