The Plot: Humanity was going about it's day just like any other when something suddenly began to happen. Along the eastern United States, beginning in Central Park, New York, people began killing themselves en masse. As they attempt to escape the areas affected by the threat of unknown origin, a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg), his wife (Zooey Deschanel), their friend (John Leguizamo), and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) slowly begin to piece together who and/or what is to blame for the happening.
The Review: What say we begin with a brief history of writer/director/producer M. Night Shayamalan's career? I've never seen Praying with Anger or Wide Awake, but I would bet that if you asked any average movie-goer what Shayamalan's first movie was, they'd answer "duh, The Sixth Sense". Without a doubt, that is the film which put Mr. M. Night on the map. I saw this movie when it came out back in 1999 and was lucky enough not to have the now well known twist ending ruined for me beforehand. I thought that the film was just okay. I didn't catch up with 2002's Unbreakable until after it arrived on DVD, but thoroughly enjoyed it for being an original take on the superhero genre. Signs also passed me by until it's release on home video, but came highly recommended from a few friends. As it turns out, to this day I still don't like Signs because of it's "twist" ending, which I view as being less of a twist and more "right out of left field". The trailers for The Village piqued my interest and it turned out to be the second of Shayamalan's four straight thrillers that I really liked. Oddly enough, the two which I enjoyed (Unbreakable and The Village) seemed to be the same two that weren't very popular with the majority of viewers. Then came Lady In The Water, which, following the unpopular The Village, only served to further bury Shayamalan's career under an ever-thickening layer of critical disapproval. In other words, it sucked. Cut to 2008 and the impending release of The Happening. I love a good mystery, especially if there is a possibility that science fiction will play a role in it, so the trailers for The Happening immediately captured my imagination. Not to mention, if the trend of my liking every other Shayamalan movie were to continue, after Lady In The Water I was due for an enjoyable time at the movies. So, did The Happening deliver?
This movie is essentially one big question, that question being "what is causing the happening?" I'll start by saying that I will not be spoiling the answer to that query. However, I will say that one of the main problems that this films detractors have with it is the big secret. I, on the other hand, have no problem whatsoever with the cause behind the events of The Happening. I thought that it was a very original concept (though coincidentally quite similar to one other movie that has come out in recent memory), and had that been the only aspect of the film that it's non-fans were concerned with, I would be calling everyone who didn't enjoy The Happening a bunch of pretentious doo-doo heads. It is true that the film's "culprit" is a bit of a tough pill to swallow, but in my opinion it's really no different from George Romero asking his audiences to believe that dead people can come back to life, or Wolfgang Petersen expecting viewers to believe that a single monkey could cure the plague unleashed in Outbreak. It's certainly no less believable than a former baseball player beating the shit out of glasses of water that were left lying around the house by his sister because she's got a weird personality quirk in order to kill the aliens who are trying to kidnap their brother who just so happens to have an illness which protects him from the poison gasses they can spew from their wrists all because Mel Gibson's dead wife's last words were "swing away" and he remembered them at the exact moment that his family was attacked in M. Night Shayamalan's own movie Signs. And let's remember that after The Sixth Sense, that's probably his most popular film (at least it is according to sites such as Rotten Tomatoes).
So to bring that topic to a close, no, I didn't think that the big revelation of The Happening was a disappointment. To me it brought back memories of the kinds of horror stories that you can read in the old EC and Warren comics from the 50's to the late 70's and early 80's. Those comics stretched the boundaries of believability to be sure, but it was all for the enjoyment of the reader. Replace "reader" with viewer and you've got the same situation with The Happening in my eyes. Does that mean that anyone who's not a fan of this film is a pretentious doo-doo head, then? No, it doesn't. As it turns out, there are plenty of other reasons for people to complain about The Happening that don't directly relate to the movie's core concept.
I can't speak for anyone else when I say this, and based on what I've been reading around the web I certainly don't speak for very many people on this subject, but I thought that the acting in The Happening was overall very good. I've been hearing a lot of negative comments about Mark Wahlberg's performance, but I quite liked him in this role. What I didn't necessarily like so much were some of the lines and/or scenes that he was working with. A lot of the dialogue in The Happening felt very forced and out of place, but I thought that Wahlberg did the best he could with what he had and did an great job of giving the audience a main character that they could get behind and root for. On the other end of the spectrum, I couldn't stand Zooey Deschanel's character. She plays Wahlberg's wife, and almost every time she opened her mouth I wondered why Mark's character hadn't divorced her yet. She was whiny, annoying, and a generally unlikable person. This says something for Deschanel as it is impressive that she could create a character that had such an effect on me, but I was generally just pissed off every time she opened her mouth. One specific thing about her character that bugged the crap out of me was that she had problems showing her emotions to others, but more than once she openly talked to people about her fear of showing her emotions, which seemed to contradict the fact that she was supposedly so unable or unwilling to express how she was feeling. John Leguizamo has impressed me a few times over the course of his career, but tends to just be a rather meaningless addition to any cast. Here, I actually liked him quite a bit and felt that he brought something to the table. The last of the four main characters in The Happening is a young actress named Ashlyn Sanchez who plays Leguizamo's daughter. It's not hard for child characters to annoy me in movies, and I was often annoyed by this little girl. She did serve her purpose though, and since she was sharing most of her scenes with Zooey Deschanel's character, most of my hatred was usually aimed squarely at her instead of her young co-star.
So I liked some of the acting, though not all of it, and I enjoyed the basic concept of the film. Does that mean that my feelings on The Happening are positive overall? Absolutely not, and I'll tell you why. The acting and directing here range from passable to above average, but most of this movie's hang-ups come from the script. As I've already stated, I liked the basic premise, but the story was far from solid. The decisions of the characters often felt as though they were only trying to further the plot. That is, of course, how you make a movie work, but those decisions have to feel natural enough that they don't call attention to themselves. Too often things just seemed to fall into place or work out a little too perfectly, not necessarily for the characters, but for the filmmakers. For example, after some of our survivors reach a small house in the middle of a field the owner gives them one single piece of information about the house. Five minutes later, that single piece of information turns out to play a major part in the story. It just felt as though Shayamalan was force-feeding me things to make his movie work. The same fault comes into play multiple times as the characters begin to discover the big secret behind the events occurring around them. As I've said, the premise of The Happening is a bit out there, but instead of coming up with smooth, interesting ways for the characters to begin to put the pieces of the proverbial puzzle together, they instead simply happen to run into a strange fellow who has a theory about what's going on which just happens to be exactly what is in fact going on. Again, I felt as though M. Nigh was just throwing answers at me instead of weaving them into the plot.
Then there's the suspense. Or should I say lack of suspense. Large chunks of the population are being forced to kill themselves by some unseen force and I was hardly affected by it. Admittedly, I was pretty enthralled when some construction workers began throwing themselves from the roof of a work-site, but aside from that moment and perhaps one or two others, this "thriller" didn't do a whole lot to thrill me. The atmosphere just wasn't there. When I think about what this movie should have made me feel like, titles such as Alien, The Mist, and John Carpenter's The Thing come to mind. Instead The Happening felt a bit more like the film Tremors. There's nothing wrong with that movie, and in fact I love Tremors, but it's pretty light-hearted for a movie about giant killer worms. In the same way, The Happening is a bit too light-hearted for a movie about everyone suddenly turning suicidal and stabbing themselves in the neck with big needles. Tremors totally worked because it was meant to be an action/comedy/sci-fi romp, but The Happening is supposed to be a dread-inducing disaster movie. At least that's what the trailers led me to believe. But then, by definition trailers are meant to make the film in question look good. The trailer for The Happening succeeded. The movie itself didn't.
The Verdict: So many great things could have been done with the concept behind The Happening, but M. Night Shayamalan either didn't bother to explore those possibilities or just didn't do them justice. Mark Wahlberg tries his best to save the weak script he's been provided, but ultimately fails to do so. A few cheap scares aside, this film fails to earn the R rating that it was boasted as being the first Shayamalan film to receive. I liked the idea behind this film, but for this reviewer, a repeat viewing of The Happening won't be happening anytime soon (pun most definitely intended).