I find most of M. Night Shyamalan's films to be charming pop-culture entertainment. He's pretty much the only director left making 1950s-style B-movies. If you don't expect any depth or intellectual heft from a movie, but are also not looking for the kind of brainless action that requires endless explosions, you'll find he covers a nice middle ground. There's a semblance of intellect and a set of intriguing ideas, but they're not played out in a highbrow manner; rather, they're just sort of tossed around for the "ooh" factor.
It's that way with his latest, The Happening, which is, in a strange way, a remake of the 1962 British sci-fi/horror classic The Day of the Triffids. It's an olio of wide-eyed, goofball acting, silly pseudo-science, dark thrills and neatly paced tension. In the end, it goes nowhere, but it lets you know that very early on, so if you get to the final sequence and feel ripped off, then you missed the clues in the beginning.
In classic old-school horror-movie style, the film opens with ominous music and shots of clouds. People don't realize this, but clouds are scary, because they can bring rain, and also, they're huge. Credits scroll over the clouds, and you see that this film features John Leguizamo, which is even scarier than clouds, as John Leguizamo is Colombia's answer to Carrot Top. Then the music reaches a crescendo as the words "Written, Produced and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan" appear, which could be overly frightening to sensitive viewers who've had to sit through Lady in the Water.
Cut to a shot of Central Park, New York City, and a subtitle reading "8:33 a.m.," which, as all New Yorkers know, is the most terrifying time of day. It's then that a happening happens, and to describe it is to spoil one of the tiny surprises that litter the film. So if you're worried about that sort of thing, I'd suggest reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House instead of this movie review. It's a charming and often overlooked novel on the quiet terror of growing old.
What happens is that people in the park freeze in place, then start walking backward, then begin finding inventive ways to kill themselves. It's kind of like watching the last eight years of Republican Party politics sped up into a two-minute sequence.
The film then shifts to the high school science classroom of teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg). Moore is concerned with the disappearance of bees, and he notes that it might be an act of nature which we will never fully understand. He actually italicizes the words, as though to say I am foreshadowing. Please listen closely, and prepare for cinema. In doing this, Wahlberg gives a truly strange performance. But then so does everyone in the cast. I can only assume Shyamalan directed them to act like they were chanting their lines while being anally probed, because they all stare wide-eyed at the camera and speak in desperate monotones.
This works perfectly for Zooey Deschanel, because she clearly received her oversized eyeballs in a transplant from a very pretty space alien. She plays Alma Moore, wife to Wahlberg's Elliot Moore, and they're having some marital difficulties: It seems that, one night, a month earlier, she had some tiramisu with a co-worker. Yes. Tiramisu. How whorish.
While they work out their dessert issues, the strange happening spreads across the northeastern United States. The news reports say that people are being affected by an airborne toxin that selectively inhibits the neurons that cause self-preservation. I like the pseudo-science in this explanation, the idea that if we just turned off a few neurons, we'd all stab ourselves to death with hat pins. While it's farfetched, it does give Shyamalan a chance to film some gorgeous scenes of death. People leap en masse from buildings, indulge in group hangings from shady oak trees, throw themselves under thresher-mowers and bash their heads through walls. The toxin's effect is so unlikely and so visually arresting, it's as though it were made especially for a movie.
From here, the film becomes a tense thriller, with Alma and Elliot fleeing into the hinterlands of Pennsylvania to escape the mysterious toxin. There are some brutally frightening scenes as civilization thins out and breaks down. The film is definitely too intense for younger viewers, which is too bad, because it's too intellectually silly for older viewers.
But if you can get in the right mood, the kind you need to be in to watch The Day the Earth Stood Still or This Island Earth or any now-campy mid-20th-century sci-fi, then you could find The Happening to be tremendously entertaining. It's beautifully photographed by Tak Fujimoto, who's a master of balancing color and open space in his compositions. The music is perfectly cheesy; the acting has a crazed intensity reminiscent of the final sequence of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and the whole thing peters out in a go-nowhere ending that is perfectly telegraphed and, therefore, perfectly satisfying to those who got the early clues.
On the other hand, if you're looking for high-end entertainment or the kind of middlebrow art film that Shyamalan was mistakenly credited with making in the past, The Happening will be a disappointment. But then so will most of life.