Film review by: Witney Seibold
This is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Happening,” and it freaks me out. Yuk yuk. Let’s just hope the popular filmmaker can continue his upswing after the truly misguided affair that was “Lady in the Water.” Despite having an (I assume) unintentionally corny 1950s B-Movie quality (or perhaps an early-Hitchcock-ian exploitation-movie quality), “The Happening” is actually a well-wrought exercise in cinematic tension. The actors may have been miscast, but Shyamalan’s undeniable skill as a filmmaker shines through any cheesy performances and contrived disaster-movie clichés that “The Happening” can throw at us. In short (and hearteningly), it’s pretty good.
The disaster du jour: One afternoon, the people strolling through Central Park freeze in their tracks. They begin to wander aimlessly. They talk in riddles. Then, without warning or reaction, they begin to commit suicide in masses. Is it terroists? Is it a toxin? Is it just a mass change of mind?
We then cut to a high school science teacher in Philadelphia named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who is perhaps about to break up with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). Like most people in the Northeast, they mobilize to flee the area. Sadly, this plague of suicides seems to be spreading faster than they can move, and soon the beleaguered couple find themselves shouldered with a friend (John Leguizamo) and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez), fleeing on foot through the backwaters of Pennsylvania, trying to escape the toxin, or whatever it is.
There is a definite explanation given for this plague of suicides, but I will reveal nothing other than to say perhaps we, as a humans, should treat the environment a little better. No, this is not a “twist” ending that Shyamalan has been accused of doing in every one of his films (He only did it in one of his films, and another has a “surprise” ending). It’s just a jab at the audience.
Indeed, “The Happening” resembles not so much “The Sixth Sense” as “War of the Worlds,” and the 1953 version at that. Or perhaps the 1956 “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The heroes are appealingly bland everymen and are characteristically resolute. The panicked sprints across potentially toxic fields, the montages of widespread suicides… they all feel delightfully old-fashioned. Everyone speaks in modern language, of course, and the film’s R-rated level of gore could only have been produced in this decade, but “The Happening” is a 1950s paranoiac thrill-ride through-and-through.
If you’re into that sort of thrill, then you’ll love this one. I am, so I did.