In 1999, a little horror movie titled The Sixth Sense hit theatres and took audiences and critics on one of the great metaphorical rollercoaster rides of that decade. Over $650 million in box office haul and six Academy Award nominations later, a star was born. But for once, that star was not an actor (though the movie greatly helped the careers of Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette), but the film's director, the mysteriously named M. Night Shyamalan.
There was a new face in town and he promised to deliver a unique brand of entertainment, which paved the way for a long and healthy career. Then Shyamalan took one stumble too many, his creative mistakes culminating with the hokey fairy tale Lady in the Water. The movie was a critical and financial failure. Shyamalan had officially lost his touch, placing his career in jeopardy. But as silly and self-absorbed as Lady in the Water was, nothing could have prepared me for what Shyamalan would do next.
His latest, The Happening, is a grade Z movie that plays like a comedic version of a Twilight Zone episode. It offers laughs in place of scares and it does so with a stubbornly straight face. This is a movie that will be mercilessly mocked by the masses for years to come, destined to earn a spot among the great creative missteps in modern movie history.
The plot revolves around Elliot and Alma, an unhappily married couple (played by the usually talented Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, now looking more confused than ever) who, along with everyone else, evacuate their hometown of Philadelphia when multiple people start walking backwards and committing suicide. Early on, one character insightfully remarks that "there seems to be an event happening," which is basically an ominous way of stating the obvious. Fearing that the cities have been specifically targeted for an attack, Elliot and Alma head into the Pennsylvania countryside and soon discover that nowhere is all too safe. Along the way, they meet various people just as scared as they are and end up saddled with the responsibility of protecting a friend's child. That simple synopsis pretty much covers all of the movie's sparse narrative bases. Once the set-up is complete, the movie basically becomes a series of bad scenes involving running, screaming, and lots of wind.
Shyamalan's films always treat their material with an icy seriousness, which works in a moody horror movie like The Sixth Sense, but only further exposes the silliness at work in a stiff thriller like The Happening. It doesn't help that Shyamalan employs sloppy narrative devices to convey necessary information. Sadly, the information being conveyed is so contrived, so pointlessly preposterous, that it only accentuates how clumsy its insertion into the story really is.
Despite all of the problems oozing from the movie's rotten core, the majority of issues are almost forgivable when compared to the movie's biggest and most blaring fault: the acting. The strangest aspect of the very odd experience that is watching this movie unfold, swallowing up talent as it limps along, is trying to figure out how such good actors have managed to deliver performances that would seem awkward in a shoddy high school play. Each line delivery is shockingly wooden and every sign of emotion is registered through the use of what can only be described as the "bug-eye look" (Zooey Deschanel spends nearly the entire movie with her eyes on the verge of escaping their sockets).
It is as though the entire cast has been replaced with robots. The thing that plays Elliot looks like Mark Wahlberg and speaks like Mark Wahlberg, but it doesn't act like Mark Wahlberg. Instead, it produces the worst performance yet for the former rapper and provides the movie's most hilarious moments (it also has what seems to be the only intentionally humorous moment, when Elliot solemnly speaks to a plastic houseplant). Deschanel is equally rigid and horrible, as is John Leguizamo, who at least is partially spared because his character has significantly less screen time than that of Elliot and Alma.
But in the end, no one emerges from The Happening unscathed. Everyone involved has had a hand in making a genuinely awful movie that will only receive more ridicule as the movie ages. The actors can only hope to shrug this one off and return in better form for their next roles. But Shyamalan may not be so lucky. In desperate need of a hit, he instead brought this beastly abomination to life. Perhaps he exhausted his bag of cinematic tricks years ago and we are witnessing the dregs of his creative juices. Perhaps he has simply lost his mind and forgot how to make a movie, how to tell a story. Either way, Shyamalan has reached a sad place for a filmmaker who once showed such promise. He is now a pale shadow of his former self, his past achievements now a distant memory.