The Happening

Posted on October 9, 2008 at 8:00 am

happening.jpgHere’s a spooky story: a talented storyteller mesmerizes his audience and then loses his way in a thicket of self-regard so that no matter how hard he tries, each of the stories he tells becomes less powerful than the one before.

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most talented film-makers working today. But he seems to be running out of ideas. He still knows how to use a camera brilliantly and he is still a master of images that are disturbing in an intriguing way. But so much of this movie seem greatest hits cut and pasted from his other, better films, as generic as the title (anyone else here humming the Supremes song?). There is a train as in “Unbreakable.” There is a scene in a schoolroom as in “The Sixth Sense.” A child is important to the story as in “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” Like “Signs” there is a scary scene with characters trapped in a beautiful old house in a remote location.

“There appears to be an event happening.” All at once, without warning, people in New York City’s Central park become disoriented and then self-destructive. They begin to kill themselves. Bodies come hurtling from the girders of a construction project. A cop pulls out his gun and kills himself. Others grab the gun lying near his body to shoot themselves with the remaining bullets. Have terrorists released toxins into the air? Is it some kind of alien attack? No one knows.

In Philadelphia, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is called out of class. The students are being sent home. He and his best friend Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher, decide it will be safer away from the city. Julian’s wife is out of town but will meet up with them. Elliot’s slightly estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) comes along but insists on sitting alone. Then, in the middle of nowhere, the train stops. “We’ve lost contact,” the conductor tells them. “With whom?” “Everyone.”

Julian goes in search of his wife, leaving his shy daughter with Elliot. And so Elliot, Alma, and the little girl go on the run, not knowing anything about what it is they are running from or where they are running to.

Many of the individual scenes deliver. Shyamalan knows how to create an eerie mood and when to pepper the story with release, whether a gasp or a laugh. But there is some unintentional humor as Elliot and Alma pause to resolve their marital conflicts, natter about a mood ring, and Elliot tries to make conversation with a potted plastic plant. The talented Wahlberg and Deschanel do their best but cannot make much of an impression with cardboard characters and clunky exposition. Wahlberg manages some warmth now and then but Deschanel has little do to but open her eyes wide. Those blue eyes seem to be Shyamalan’s favorite special effect. The exposition is intrusively inserted and clumsily handled. And in the last half hour, just as things should be ramping up, all of the air rushes out like a stuck balloon. Shyamalan does not always have to deliver a twist, but he does have to deliver an ending better than this one.

Parents should know that this movie has a good deal of violence, some graphic, multiple suicides, shooting death of teenagers, mauling by an animal, some grisly images of wounds and dead bodies, disturbing themes including the deaths of hundreds of people, and brief strong language. There is a sexual joke and there are some mild references to infidelity.

Family discussion: Julian has to make a very difficult choice between protecting his wife and protecting his daughter. What were the reasons for the decision he made and do you agree? What other choices made by the people in this movie seemed right or wrong to you?

If you like this, try: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” the classic thriller “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (the original and first remake) and M. Night Shyamalan movies “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs”

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Science-Fiction Thriller

13 Replies to “The Happening”

  1. To say that “M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most talented film-makers working today” really shows that you have no business reviewing movies.

  2. B: Nell doesn’t encourage “flame wars,” and I try not to enter in, but:
    a) Your comment is rude
    b) Nell’s right — Shyamalan is an amazingly talented filmmaker; even many of his cinema-loving detractors acknowledge that.
    So, please give it a rest.

  3. B, to say that I “have no business reviewing movies” is to say that you confuse insults with arguments. That is a shame, as I would really like to know what you think and why we disagree. You, too, B+1 — and “a dud for three movies in a row” does not mean he is not talented; your own assertion admits that he has made good films. Have either of you seen the film? I can’t tell from what you wrote, and I do not believe people should comment on films they have not seen.
    It is not the job of a critic to write something you agree with. It is the job of the critic to explain his or her own opinions in a way that is enlightening and interesting to read in a way that can help readers decide whether a movie is right for them or perhaps help them think about a movie in a new way.
    And do we disagree that much? Read the review again, particularly the first paragraph. I am very critical of Shyamalan. But he is an enormously talented film-maker who really knows how to use the camera to tell a story and how to compose strikingly unforgettable images. He has great strengths and great faults, both worth discussing, so if you care to weigh in with ideas and arguments, we’d all be glad to hear them.

  4. Thank you Nell for you reply to B+1. I look for critic reviews so that I know what to look for to see if it is right for me or my child to see. I understand that a critics review is that of his own. Most people don’t realize this because we all have our own opinions. I do think Shyamalan is a great writer and director (even his dud movies are tolerable) because he does not feel like he needs “the gore” in order to make a good movie. Thank you for being so direct. It is very refreshing.

  5. thank you this review of the movie was helpful im going to see it tonight with my girlfriend. Hope it’s good ! i love any movie with wahlberg =]

  6. the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Not just bad. It’s empty. No one redeeming quality. I generally like movies . . . even those that aren’t that good. However, I’ve never seen anything so useless. My wife and I started to walk out during the first 10 minutes and continued to convenice ourselves to stick it out, it would have to get better. Alas, nothing. And the story had such potential. No drama, no excitement, no passion, no twist, no emotion, nothing. In a word, empty.

  7. M. Night Shyamalan needs to hang up the movie making. I really don’t understand how anyone at this point can say that he is a good movie maker. He had one really good movie, Sixth Sense, and he has been riding that fame ever since. He always seems to get big names for his movies, which makes people like me interested in seeing them, thinking that Mark Wahlberg or Mel Gibson wouldn’t do a bad movie, this must be ok – WRONG! My wife and I have now officially said “no more” to the Shyamalan movies, I don’t care who he gets to be in them.
    This movie was just a stinker from beginning to end. Nothing of the characters or their behavior was believable at all, which made the movie just unbearable to watch. The whole concept of the movie could have been good, but the character actions just dragged it down. I believe this to be the story with all his movies. We know the actors can act, because again, he gets good ones to be in his stinker movies somehow, but his directing of them is just horrible. He makes his actors act stupid, like they just arrived on Earth and they have no concept of being afraid of something. If regular people were standing on top of a hill trying to escape an unknown bio-weapon that they know travels in the wind, what would they do if they saw wind coming their way? They would IMMEDIATELY start running. They would not stand there wondering what to do. In an M. Night Shyamalan movie, they stand there asking each other what to do. After stupid instance after stupid instance like this in the movie, it just becomes too much to take.
    The actors in his movies act too lame to build any suspense and even a good story line opportunity gets monotonous to the point of ridiculous. M. Night Shyamalan needs to hang it up. This move, as his past few have been, was just horrible! I’m angry at myself for sitting through it.

  8. Great comment, xincer! Thanks so much and I hope you will return to let us know what you think about the other movies you see. It is a terrible disappointment to see Shyamalan lose his way. I still hope he will learn from these failures because I do think he is talented.

  9. I thought this was going to be an exciting and suspenseful movie, boy was I wrong. The acting was terrible and completely unbelievable. If this was a real situation there would be panic and screaming and running, but no, everyone was relatively calm watching bodies fly off a building. The audience wasn’t drawn into the characters lives or what was happening at all. It could have been so much better. What a waste of my time. I am very glad that I only paid a dollar at the Red Box to watch it.

  10. I feel your pain, Mel! Thanks so much for sharing your reaction and please keep us posted o what you think of the movies you see.

  11. Sorry, but I completely disagree with your review. This was a very good movie, especially when you compare it to The Village and Lady in the Water. The movies you want to compare this one to are off as well. This movie has more of a The Crazies feel, but instead of people becoming homicidal, they become suicidal. Different idea, but I think this movie was a step in the right direction for M. Night Shyamalan. I guess movie reviews differ from person to person.

  12. Het, I am always happy to hear from someone who sees more in a movie than I do. As your comment recognizes, a review is by definition the reaction of one individual. It is comments like yours that add so much value to this site by giving visitors additional context and perspective.

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