The Happening (2008)
★ / ★★★★
There are many things wrong in “The Happening,” written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but the casting of the leads, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, is perhaps the most salient misstep. The story being a hybrid of science fiction and mystery, it is a basic requirement that the performers be able to emote the deepest and most sincere emotions. Wahlberg and Deschanel are far from the most versatile actors. For instance, Wahlberg has this annoying habit of sounding disingenuous when trying to make others interested in what his character is talking about. Take note of the classroom scene during the first fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Deschanel’s facial expression does not change. She always looks wide-eyed and innocent even when the occasion does not call for it.
A strange event begins in Central Park, New York City. It appears to be just another morning at the park: Health-conscious people are jogging, pets are being taken for a walk, men and women in professional attires are headed to work, others are sitting on benches chatting with friends. There is a gust of wind. Everything stops. A select few start walking backwards. Then they start to hurt themselves. At a nearby construction site, workers jump off buildings. The news claim it must be some sort of a terrorist attack.
The central character is Elliot (Wahlberg), a science teacher whose wife, Alma (Deschanel), is currently wrestling with her conscience. She had went on a date with another man. This could have been a potent human conflict amidst a most bizarre phenomenon if the screenplay had been more probing into its subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Instead, an attempt at comedy is utilized time and again for the sake of “entertainment”—in quotations because the so-called jokes and funny bits do not work at all. These scenes come across as though they were from a completely different picture.
The material asks the viewers to use their imagination. This is a good thing. The problem is that the film does not provide anything of value that inevitably engages us. There are shots of the wind caressing leaves of trees, tall grass, and bushes. This is almost always accompanied by a mysterious or creepy score. But what is the point when there is no payoff? By the end, the explanation is that there is no explanation because we do not yet understand nature completely. This is lazy and insulting.
There is no third act. The first act, which takes place in NYC, sets up the story. The second act involves a migration, running away from the reported terrorist attacks. And then it just ends with a subtitle claiming that three months had passed. This is most curious because Shyamalan is highly attuned to having three well-defined arcs. This is why “Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Signs” feel like complete, well-told stories. By the end of these aforementioned movies, we want to know more about what would happen to the characters even though there is nothing more to say.
One walks away from “The Happening” feeling cheated because the mystery offers to intrigue or depth, the characters are one-dimensional, and it fails to offer anything new or exciting to the various sub-genres it embodies. Its level of creativity is bone dry.