Anyone who has seen M. Night’s earlier films, particularly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, knows that the man was a master of the twist ending. But using it in every film has led to people going in and expecting the twist, which results in having to think of ever more ingenious surprises to shock your audience. Needless to say, when you start stealing plot twists from H.G. Wells and removing the intelligence, you’re starting on a slippery slope towards failure. But hey, I liked Unbreakable, and even Signs wasn’t bad if you ignored the ending. No, Shyamalan’s descent to “tired punchline to a joke no-one laughs at” began with The Village, which might as well have sign-posted its twist in mile-high neon letters. Then came Lady in the Water… the less said the better. But after his brief foray into fantasy, Shyamalan went back to his roots in psychological horror with The Happening. Sadly, it was not a happy reunion, as The Happening manages to mangle the horror with its laughable premise and disappointing pay-off.
To be completely honest, when I first saw the trailer for this flick, I was intrigued. Mass suicides with no clear cause? What could be causing this? But then, the trailer only really shows people jumping from tall buildings, so it could clearly have been one cause for that specific kind of suicide attempt. But no, they really don’t seem to have decided what the mysterious agent actually does to people. It makes you freeze in place; no, it makes you claw at yourself until you bleed; no, it doesn’t affect you in the slightest; ah, no, it causes you to stab yourself; nope, jumping off buildings… If you want a terrifying and omnipotent force as the “antagonist” in your movie, try to keep a list of its abilities, otherwise it just looks like you’re making things up on the fly. I won’t spoil the twist, but trust me when I say it’s both an enormous disappointment and a laughable example of what happens when you run out of good ideas for twists. However, it is revealed very early on that whatever is causing these calamities is a chemical which “turns off” the self-preservation node in the brain. Now, I understand why this might cause people to fall from buildings by simple lack of care near the end. But how does losing one’s sense of self-preservation cause one to stab themselves in the neck with a hair-pin?! There are two likely explanations – she had one hell of an itch, or M. Night Shyamalan has lost his touch. I know where the smart money is being put.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that this film is poorly-written and, frankly, dull, the messages it tries to convey are somewhat infuriating. Of course, there are the usual heavy-handed statements and metaphors about humanity’s impact on the environment, as found in any 21st Century “green” film (Shyamalan’s original title was The Green Effect). Personally, I have no problem with trying to make people environmentally-conscious through the medium of cinema, I just object when it’s handled with all the subtlety of an elephant kicking a sheep to death in the middle of a fireworks display. But the crowning glory of misguided idiocy comes a mere 8 minutes in, when Mark Wahlberg’s character (a biology teacher, no less!) states that science is full of mere “theories”, and that many things will remain forever beyond our understanding, which just serves to show the writer’s ignorance of how the word “theory” is used in science. Certainly, if we listen to Karl Popper, no-one ever proves a theory true, they only fail to disprove it, but that is not the same as saying that if theories are not well-supported by evidence. If I throw a ball into the air a million times, and it comes down every time, the chances of it flying upwards indefinitely next time I throw it are far from 50:50. I concede that there may well be many things beyond science’s understanding, but the disappearance of honey bees is not one of them. I apologise for the tangent, but it severely irked me.
I don’t usually criticise casting too much, as in a film like this there are no pre-conceptions of how the characters should behave, but asking me to believe that both Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are teachers is ludicrous. An action man and a comedy sidekick do not instructors make. Zooey Deschanel seems to be on powerful tranquilisers for the most part, and the dialogue… Oh, the dialogue. “Hackneyed” or “stilted” comes to mind in terms of adjective, “cliche” if you’re looking for a noun. Some of it doesn’t even sound like a human being is speaking, much less a highly-paid actor. On the plus side though, there is a brief cameo by Brian O’Halloran of View Askewniverse fame as John Leguizamo’s doomed chauffeur.
But there’s an unwritten rule that I have to find something good about every film I watch, so I have to give credit to The Happening for its rather spooky soundtrack and one particular scene that had me rolling in the aisle. As the mysterious suicide-plague hits Philadelphia, a police officer draws his gun and shoots himself dead. A cab driver then takes up the gun and does likewise. Then a businesswoman. It’s clearly supposed to be shocking, but they do it so calmly and in rhythm that I can’t help but be tickled. In fact, most of the deaths in this film are unintentionally side-splitting, especially when they involve green-screened lionesses. So for all its flaws, The Happening did manage to elicit a chuckle or two from me. M. Night claims that this was supposed to be a B-movie, but if you have a budget of $60 million, you can do better than this. For me, Daybreakers worked far better as a (relatively) big budget B-movie, since it didn’t fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously, and had the added benefit of Willem Defoe, who can always be trusted to supply your film with some much needed melodrama. The Happening, on the other hand, both gains my award for laziest title and most moronic twist in recent movie history.