M. Night Shyamalan takes a fair amount of crap in the press and with audiences these days. He admitted himself in last week’s New York Times interview that he’s known solely as “‘… the guy who makes the scary movies with a twist.’” He will undoubtedly be forever followed around by people saying “I see dead people” thanks to his greatest success, The Sixth Sense in 1999. Some people liked his follow-ups Unbreakable, Signs and The Village well enough. But remember how fast the knives came out after his last film, The Lady in the Water? We’re guessing that’s going to be nothing compared to what’s sure to come after The Happening.
Now, we went into the screening ready to have our pants scared off. From what we’d gathered from previews, the mysterious, nefarious attacking force in The Happening was nature itself – and honestly, at this point, what could be more terrifying than that? We won’t reveal any secrets (except to say that anyone waiting through the third act for a mind-blowing last-minute twist are sure to be disappointed), but will say that we were left with an awful lot of questions that had nothing to do with the movie’s plot. Like, how on earth did this movie get made? There were lines of dialogue that felt so absurdly clunky, so clearly thrown in for expository reasons, that other critics in the screening started laughing. The actual premise of the movie is an interesting one (a new genre: the eco-thriller), but even though the production notes call it a “lightning-paced, heart-pounding paranoid thriller,” even the action-y, supposed suspenseful scenes feel muddled and slow.
And … it didn’t make a whole lot of sense! There are moments scattered throughout this 91 minute film (in theory short, but in actuality loooong) where Mr. Shyamalan nails a particularly creepy and poignant image. But most of the time, instead of showing us (beyond some graphic bits that garnered the much-talked-about R rating) what to be scared of, he – or more specifically his two leads, end up telling us. Which brings us to the tragedy of Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, who star, and were somehow forced to deliver their lines like bad soap stars gone amuck (at one point, Mr. Wahlberg delivers an un-ironic ‘Oh no!’). Ms. Deschanel, previously lovely and quirky, is twitchy and odd. Her main direction seems to have been to open her eyes wide and tap her fingers a lot. We kept thinking about how excited these two must have been to have landed a big summer movie like this one, and it made us feel … sad.
After the screening, a woman in the restroom asked us if we thought that perhaps Mr. Shyamalan was trying to make an Ed Wood-like old-fashioned disaster movie – that perhaps that was the twist: It was supposed to be this bad! But sadly, we don’t think so. And, in the end, maybe that’s the scariest part of The Happening.