By Steve Biodrowski
In his latest ominous opus, M. Night Shyamalan offers up low-intensity thrills that fail to match the shivery shudders of his best work (THE SIXTH SENSE, SIGNS). His patented approach – mixing domestic drama with horror – plays out on a much larger canvas ths time, yet yields diminishing returns inversely proportional to the scope of the project. The presentation of an uncanny “happening” that defies explanation evokes a suitable sense of paranoia early on, but putting the horror on a global scale dwarfs the human element, rendering it almost petty. The strident attempt to underline the events with a thought-provoking message makes George A. Romero recent work seem subtle by comparison. By the conclusion the film has descended into unconvincing melodrama, tagged by hokey happy ending and a predictable “twist.”
Things get off to a good start when a bunch of people in Central Park begin killing themselves for no reason. The R-rated gore is actually rather mild and lacking in shock value, but the weirdness of the irrational behavior (which includes freezing in place like a mannequin) feels like a nightmare in the daytime. Initial reports indicate that the cause of mass suicide was neuro-toxin delivered by terrorists, leading to an exodus from the city, but as the contagion spreads the original explanation is abandoned, and the characters come to believe that nature – plants, to be specific – are to blame. The deadly attacks seem to be triggered by large groups of people, leading the survivors to split into smaller and smaller bands until only a trio are left in an old, isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Here, they wait, hoping that the inexplicable phenomenon will crest ans subside.
The mass suicide idea is not without a creepy factor, but it is much less threatening than having people turn homicidal (as long as the characters can avoid breathing the toxin, they are safe – no danger that their former friends will turn on them). As long as Shyamalan keeps juggling several possible explanations, none of which is clearly correct, the unknown nature of the threat remains reasonably strong. However, once plants are fingered as the prime suspect, the film goes downhill quickly.
Part of the problem is the ubiquitous nature of plant life. The characters are trying to run to safety, but it is clear to the audience that everywhere they go, they are surrounded by vegetation. The premise is that they are moving away from densely populated areas (where the attacks struck first), but visually they seem to be running toward, not away, from danger as they move farther and farther into the countryside.
Even more problematic is that fact that (outside of “Spine-Chilling Spores and Vicious Vegatation,” a la DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS), plants are simply not frightening. Shyamalan manages a few nice moments when shifting winds – revealed through ripples in the surrounding flora – suggests the approach of the lethal toxin, but more often the concept of killer plants is simply silly; scenes of characters frozen in fear while surrounded by verdant vegetation or standing warily in front of potted petunias are not exactly the stuff of nightmares. Shyamalan tries to short-circuit the inevitable laughter by insert an intentionally funny scene wherein science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) finds himself talking defensively to a plastic plant, but the effort is only partly successful.
If the scares are muted, the drama is downright dull. Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) seem to be going through some kind of crisis, but all it boils down to is that she had desert with someone she knows at work. This trivial plot line is hardly helped by Deschanel, who wanders through her role looking lost, as if she just stepped in from some quirk independent movie and cannot figure out what she should be doing. The unsubtle naming of her character (”Alma” means “soul’) has an unfortunate irony, in that the actress is unable to convey anything like soul; Shyamalan’s loving close-ups dwell on her beautiful eyes, but we see nothing of interest behind them.
Wahlberg does his best, but the script undermines him, forcing him to say silly lines like “We have to stay ahead of the wind.” (Oh really? And how are we supposed to outrun the wind?). His supposedly heartfelt decision to face death in order to be with Alma at the end strikes a note of contrivance: the script has already indicated that the suicide phenomenon is like to crest and subside quite suddenly, so Elliot’s decision not to wait seems foolish rather than romantic.
As might be expected, the best thing about the film is John Leguizamo, but isn’t that always the problem with casting him? He upstages the stars, registers emotions in a way that makes you believe the incredible situation, and leaves you want to see more of him. When his characters drops out, the impact is memorable, but the heart of the film dies with him. (He also gets the film’s single best moment: When handing over his daughter to Alma so that he can go search for his wife, he notes Alma’s too casual assumption of responsibility and stops her short, insisting, “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it!“)
Despite the rather obvious revenge-of-nature theme, Shyamalan avoids a preachy tone for most of the running time. He juggles different explanations (radiation from a power plant, a secret CIA program) to prevent the film from lapsing into a simple-minded message movie, and he even pokes a little fun at his theme with a deliberately tongue-in-cheek wide angle shot of a billboard for a housing development, topped with a tagline in huge letters reading, “You Deserve This.” Unfortunately, he gives up the ghost near the end, pretty much whole-heartedly endorsing the idea that plants are getting even with people. He would have been much better off leaving the interpretation to his audience; apparently, he doesn’t give his viewers credit for being able to figure things out on their own.
Too bad he did not remember the lesson from two of the films he has cited as influences on THE HAPPENING: Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS and Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The great thing about metaphors is that they leave room for individual interpretation; when you explain them, you dilute their power to engage an audience. The irony is that, in attempting to say something profound, the real depth is drained away and replaced with something superficial.
THE HAPPENING (2008). Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Brelin, Robert Bailey, Jr., Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Alan Ruck, Victoria Clark, M. Night Shyamalan.