Starring : Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Writer and Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Rating : R for violent and disturbing image
M. Night Shyamalan had a pretty sweet reputation built for himself. „The Sixth Sense”, „Unbreakable”, „Signs” introduced him to the world as an imaginative director whose stories immersed, challenged and surprised. „The Village” came as a confirmation that he indeed was a one-trick-pony, whose original stories are told in pretty much the same manner. Needless to say, by the time „Lady in the Water” bored the life out of me, I was sure that he either needs to reinvent himself or find a new job (or at least drop the annoying cameos). „The Happening”, while far from being a reinvention, seemed to be at least a fun horror ride. Or at least that’s what I initially thought after seeing the trailers.
The first thing that was changed, fueling disappointmen or relief (based on the Shyamalan Hate-O-Meter every person has) is the absence of the trademarked surprise ending. In fact, the most crucial piece of information is revealed 20-30 minutes in. Shyamalan seems to move focus in other directions. The plot device is that of a biological attack on the US, a sort of airborn toxin that makes people literarly kill themselves (in imaginative ways I might add). The biological agent deactivates the brain’s self-preservation functions shut down. The infected victim cannot move at first, becomes incoherent and confused, and then simply off themselves any way they can : jumping off buildings, impaling, shooting, stabbing themselves etc. The attacks seem to originate from the park areas of the major cities of the East Coast. The story focuses on Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who flees the city with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) his brother Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter. Their adventure across the East Coast is the focus of the film. I will reveal no more because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for everyone.
Shyamalan’s films have always been thrillers/horrors, but kind of clean in terms of violence and though their main goal was to scare, they were more than just horror films. Here, Shyamalan shifts more focus on violence. The suicides are pretty graphic and have a gross-out effect never before seen in his films. For example in a Zoo, a man jumps in the lions’ cage and calmly waits until the wild animals rips his arms off. It’s quite explicit, although even Shyamalan knows better than to shamelessly show off gore, so the point of view is that of a shaky phone camera complete with not- very-precise zooms. Another man lies down in front of his cart-size lawn-mower and you can see flesh spat out from the back of the machine, but it’s all witnessed from a considerable distance so it feels at once surreal and not very immediate. It certainly deserves the R rating, making for a bold change in style for Shymalan, but not a satisfying one.
Shyamalan’s stories are mostly a mix of sensationalism, philosphy and psychology mixed in various doses. Here, he kind of cuts down the complicated stuff, leaving more room for suspense and scares and much less for the actual story and character developement. There still is a subliminal message but it’s heavily diluted and too eco-friendly for my taste. The open space as opposed to the confined environments of his past films, leave room for outdoor exploration but not much inner exploration. It’s just people running from an invisible enemy which makes for good suspense but in this case lousy storytelling. The rythm is still slow. Shyamalan takes his sweet time but doesn’t offer much to make up for that. There is no big climax, no mind-numbing revelation. It’s actually kind of dissapointing once it comes to its conclusion. I miss the surprise ending.
The acting is definetly it’s weakest link. Mark Wahlberg is wrong for the part in so many ways it hurts. He’s supposed to be a biology teacher, but hearing him talk science is as convincing as Ashton Kutcher talking street. Zooey Deschanel does her alien-among-humans-blank-stare thing and it’s so dull and annoying that she should have been written off from the script before filming even began. John Leguizamo is the film’s biggest asset, but since he’s a supporting character, he finishes his part in the first half of the running time. He should have traded places with Marky Mark.
The cinematography is excellent doing the film more justice than it should, by generating subtle tension. It does not abuse style however, keeping it to a minimum, for the sake of realism. The mood they’re going for is to immerse the viewer in this apocalyptic scenario, unlike his previous films where it was like reading a story rather than living it. There are no hand-held shots however, thank God for that. I can’t stand shaky cameras. It’s becoming a trend now, with „Cloverfield” and the Bourne franchise, but it’s very irritating and headache inducing. I like clean, steady shots, so I can actually understand what’s going on. So, extra points for „The Happening” for holding steady.
In conclusion, it’s better than „Lady in the Water”, although considering how bad that one was, it might not be saying much. It’s still not worth getting excited about, but it’s a start. It certainly has some camp value. Maybe Shyamalan will get another chance to prove his worth. I feel he deserves it, but perhaps he is too content with writing stories that would easily do better as episodes of The Twilight Zone. I’m still waiting for a comeback Mr. Shyamalan !