M. Night Shyamalan | 90 mins | cinema | 15 / R
While others have been lamenting the slide in quality of Shyamalan’s work since his breakthrough 1999 hit The Sixth Sense, I’ve been quietly enjoying most of his films since then. I liked Sixth Sense and appreciated its ingenious twist, but it was the fantastic real-world-superhero tale Unbreakable that did the most to cement him in my affections. Signs was another strong effort, an unusual perspective on alien invasion backed by decent family drama and a few good laughs, helped by the always-watchable Joaquin Phoenix and a sweet kid. On the other hand, it suffered from a stretch of a resolution, and that it starred Mel Gibson. His next was the The Village, in my opinion his biggest misfire thanks to a story disappointingly reliant on an easily-guessed twist, further undermined by a third act structure that bent over backwards to hide the reveal for as long as possible. Most reviewers seem to disagree slightly though, as Lady in the Water was widely panned. Personally I liked it, at least on the level at which it was intended, as a modern fairytale.
This, his latest effort, falls mostly in the middle of the road — a bit like a few of its extras, then. You see, the plot concerns the release of a toxin (from where, no one knows) that causes people to begin committing suicide en masse, by jumping off buildings, or shooting themselves, or a variety of other, more gruesome ideas. It’s in these sequences that The Happening is at its best — Shyamalan can still craft chilling scenes and effective jumps, even if their onset is obvious to a moderately seasoned film viewer. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a tad weak. Mark Wahlberg’s performance is flat, John Leguizamo struggles to do much better, and Zooey Deschanel gets by in a kooky role that is by turns endearing and slightly irritating. The script is mostly passable, though occasionally heavy-handed, repetitive and clunky — one moment especially jarred for me, when in a middle-of-nowhere diner it seems one person’s dialogue has been split between two actors.
Shyamalan nicely keeps the cause of the toxin up in the air — though the most probable cause is first suggested fairly early on, other theories continue to float around — but with no last-minute revelation such juggling feels unwarranted. Instead there’s just a “it could happen again” final scene, that might be chilling if it weren’t so predictable. Part of the problem with the film’s central conceit is that it’s not very believable. Now, I know, being able to see dead people, developing superpowers or finding a mermaid-like girl in your pool are hardly realistic plot points either, but here it strays too close to the realm of “I expect you to believe this is possible” pseudoscience and so, unlike Princeton gardeners, my belief struggled to be fully suspended.
Ultimately, I’d rank The Happening as Shyamalan’s worst film to date. While it’s pleasing that he doesn’t force everything to rely on a final twist, the overall quality is variable — at least The Village had something going for it before the poor climax. The cod-science explanation feels like a big excuse for a topical eco-message, otherwise just being a basis to string together a collection of well-executed creepy sequences. Perhaps Shyamalan should stop trying so hard to come up with amazing new ideas and just concentrate on telling a good story. There are things to like though, enough to scrape the film into the middle of the road. Sort of the opposite to those suicidal extras then.
They’ve just watched the film…