Plot a graph of M Night Shyamalan's career
and you could pick up quite a speed sledding to the bottom. He started on a high with The Sixth Sense and the underrated Unbreakable, but somewhere around the 80 minute mark in Signs, Night started his inexorable decline
. The Village? Lady In The Water? Twaddle of the highest order. And now, at the foot of the once mighty M Night mountain, lies The Happening, his worst film yet and surely ground zero for the director's waning credibility.
The plot for The Happening follows a similar pattern: a promising start, followed by a swift nosedive in quality. Let's be honest, this is a killer concept in more ways that one: a mysterious airborne virus is causing US citizens to drop dead of their own volition. Bodies start hitting the ground in Central Park; cops put guns to their heads and pull the trigger; workmen start falling from the skies on buildings site - the corpses literally start piling up.
But when Mark Wahlberg's science teacher (yes, you read that right) and his makeshift family are dropped into this template for terror, any tension and suspense generated drains from the picture immediately. The film's major twist - not a spoiler as it's revealed a mere 40 minutes in - is that the mass suicides are being caused by toxins released from pissed-off plants. Yep, Mother Nature is totally on her period and she's ragging on humanity. This kind of environmental hokum might get Al Gore wet, but it simply doesn't translate in cinematic terms.
Repeat: there is nothing scary about angry bushes. Scenes of rustling grass and tree branches do not make for an effective horror; characters look around in despair like they're waiting for something terrifying to be added in post-production. (One internet wag described the film better than I ever could: "It's like The Birds... only without any birds"). Yet despite it's blatant ridiculousness, Night plays it all as serious as a heart-attack: at one point, Wahlberg actually attempts to outrun wind
. Seriously. It's the best scene of elemental peril since Jake Gyllenhaal was chased by frost in The Day After Tomorrow
Wahlberg is atrocious, as wooden as the trees terrorising him. Night is fond of filling the screen with Hitchcockian close-ups of his actors, but Wahlberg's confused perma-scowl only generates muffled laughter. Dialogue is woeful enough, but delivered by an unconvincing Wahlberg, it borders on parody (his subdued exclamation of "Oh no!" might just be the new "Nooooo!" - you're off the hook, Vader). He's obviously been told to smarten up his Bostonian tough guy act, but it doesn't work: Wahlberg is great at playing the hard-ass (see his foul-mouthed turn in The Departed
) but not so much a softly-spoken science teacher. Opposite Marky Mark, even the usually lovely Zooey Deschanel is awful, her face contorted into a deer-in-headlight gawp.
Nothing in The Happening makes any sense whatsoever. Characters discover they're smack-bang in the middle of the apocalypse yet still chat amiably about relationship problems like people aren't dropping dead all around them. The script calls for numerous 'jokes' - like Wahlberg apologising to a house-plant - but then seconds later, lurches back into serious mode without warning. Tonally, it's a complete and total mess: it's literally the end of the world yet the characters of The Happening are quiet, calm and composed, even when being menaced by killer shrubs. You simply will not be able to believe how utterly fucking stupid this film is.
The Happening plays out very much like a first draft of a movie; that original screenplay that should be polished, improved and built on over time. But with Shyamalan on writing, producing and directing duty, there's been no one there to reign in his egomaniacal excesses. The result is a film so bad it's almost funny: the perfect partner to Neil LaBute's Wicker Man
remake. So where does Shyamalan go from here, surely rock bottom in his career? Um... May we suggest early retirement? Ali