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The Happening (2008)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
review by Alasdair Stuart
In Central Park, a woman forgets where she is in her book and asks her friend. Then she asks her again. And again... Across the park, people stop for a moment and then begin to calmly, silently kill themselves. In Philadelphia, high-school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is told to dismiss his class because of a terrorist attack on New York that seemed to have begun in the park. His friend Julian (John Leguizamo) offers to put him and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) up at his mother's house and together with Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), they start heading out. But the suicides are spreading, covering the northeast, and soon it becomes clear this can't be a terrorist attack...
Shyamalan is a consistently interesting, if not consistent, director and this film has a massive weight of expectation hanging off it after the widely panned Lady In The Water. Sensibly, he's returned both to the 1950s' science fiction movie model that served him well in Signs and, in many ways, the structure of Signs itself. The Happening is arguably the other side of the coin to his earlier film, a story where people struggle to understand events bigger than them not through faith, but through science.
This is a brave choice and it gives the film a very specific grammar and tone that most people are, with some justification, going to view as stilted and reserved. Wahlberg in particular has come in for some criticism for his performance but Elliot is, in many ways, a very likeable and very grounded hero. He's a decent man whose only asset, whose only gift is his intelligence and ultimately that's what saves his life and the life of those who loves. In fact, one of the film's most effective moments sees Elliot at the head of a group of panicking survivors all desperate for advice and help as he frantically tries to apply scientific method to what's happening, to understand it so he can save their lives. He's not dynamic by any stretch of the imagination but there's a likeable, quiet element to him that makes the character work.
Likewise, Deschanel is excellent as Alma, a woman who is desperately uncomfortable with her emotions and yet is forced to confront them again and again. Like Elliot, she's played superficially as a stilted, slightly uncomfortable person and again that's going to put a lot of people off. However, this is such a deliberate stylistic choice that, again, evokes the paranoia of old fashioned SF (Shyamalan cites the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Birds as influences), so it ultimately helps the film rather than hinders it.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, don't fare as well with Betty Buckley's Mrs Jones, the old woman who reluctantly helps them, interesting but somehow less than complete. There's a sense she's wandered in from a different film, or that there's more material to her story and as a result, her scenes are hampered somewhat. Only Leguizamo really registers, and his farewell scene with Wahlberg as well as a single line exchange with Deschanel are amongst the film's best moments.
What really works here though, is the feeling of terror, of dread. Whilst the cut submitted to the BBFC appears to have almost all the explicit violence removed, there's a real sense as the film progresses of things not only following a pattern but that pattern becoming progressively more dangerous. The moment where Elliot finally works out what's going on is especially well played, the wide, open cinematography neatly emphasising exactly how much trouble the characters are in. Scientifically, there are some pretty major holes but as a 'big idea' film, as an evocation of the end of the world without Aerosmith and Bruce Willis, this is more effective than the reviews have led you to believe.
For all that, make no mistake; this is not one of Shyamalan's best films. There's none of the measured, desperate hope of Unbreakable, or the intricate character interplay of The Village. Unless you approach it right, The Happening is a po-faced, even stilted story whose characters are surprisingly distant. But approached right, this is a neat homage to a time where the question was not when the world would end, but how. Intelligent, even literate and surprisingly grounded, it's a definite return to his old form.
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