News reports of strange deaths begin filtering in. Soon, urban centers are in crisis and Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg, "Invincible," "The Departed") decides to run, along with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel, "Elf," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") and math teach buddy Julian (John Leguizamo, "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead," "Love in the Time of Cholera") and his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez, "Crash"). It soon becomes evident that humankind is reacting to something which is threatening its very survival and Elliot thinks terrorists have nothing to do with "The Happening."
Pre-release buzz on writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's ("The Sixth Sense," "The Lady in the Water") latest hasn't been good, so color me surprised to say that "The Happening" has plenty to recommend it. It's not his best (that would be "Unbreakable"), but it's certainly better than his ludicrous last effort and more subtle than "Signs."
New York, Central Park, 8:33 a.m. a title card tells us. A young woman notices strange behavior, then the friend sitting beside her stabs herself in the neck. Downtown, a construction crew witnesses a horrible accident, then the bodies of their coworkers come raining down from above. The allusion to 9/11 is strong (we're even told later it's a Tuesday), but this is no terrorist threat.
At 10:30 in Pennsylvania, life is still normal. Elliot is discussing possible reasons for the disappearance of honey bees with his class. On his blackboard is a quote attributed to Einstein which notes that when the bee disappears, humankind will follow within 4 years (hmmmm, doesn't this coincide with the Mayan's prophecy that life will end in 2012?). News eventually trickles in and Elliot and Julian decide to take the train out of the city. There is conflict in the marriage of Elliot and Alma, who keeps receiving phone calls from 'Joey.' Elliot is trying to win her with patience but even his best bud thinks Alma won't go the distance in the relationship. Later, when Julian splits away to try and find his wife in Princeton, he leaves Jess with the Moores, but warns Alma that she must see his daughter through.
The film begins very effectively, with a view of clouds in fast motion set an the ominous score by James Newton Howard ("The Village," "Michael Clayton"). The suicides are mostly very originally staged and creepy as hell (a guy in a lion's cage at the zoo seems to have his arm snapped off at the wrong place, though, and the guy who does himself in with a commercial lawn mower is a bit silly, but when a film is RATED R!!! as all the ads have pummeled into us as if such a thing has never existed, I guess Night felt the need to gore things up). Shyamalan and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Signs") ensure that almost all their scenes are framed by the encroaching threat. Close ups are also used masterfully - such a simple piece of film language made jolting in its use. There's a problem, though, with the actors that those shots are closing in on and the dialogue they sometimes have to speak. Mark Wahlberg is OK, but a scene where he 'forgives' his wife's indiscretion is just plain weird, as is Zooey Deschanel throughout. The wonderfully quirky Zooey just doesn't behave like a real person, smirking at the wrong time, on another plane. And yet somehow Shyamalan pulls some emotional weight out of this marriage by film's end. Support is fairly strong across the board, but one wonders what the rationale is for Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley, "Wyatt Earp," HBO's "Oz"), a crazy hermit the Moores encounter who seems like she may have stepped out of "Misery." In fact, there's more than a little King here - that opening scene resembles the first chapter of King's "The Cell."
All Shyamalan scripts have religious themes and here spirituality is contained in a mood ring, of all things. Strangely enough, green, which is the stronger of Shyamalan's themes here, means 'not under great stress.'
Robin did not see this film.
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