The paranoia is less than deep
M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, achieved just the right balance of creepiness, horror, supernatural thrills and pop psychology. The writer-director has been chasing those elusive qualities ever since, sometimes down intriguing sci-fi backstreets (Signs) but more often down blind alleys (Lady in the Water).
In The Happening, he manages to recapture some of those elements, particularly the creepiness and supernatural thrills. But the central menace—an airborne neurotoxin that causes mass suicides in the northeastern US—doesn’t pan out as any kind of Friday night entertainment. The movie seems more like a 1950s science fiction film of extreme paranoia or an episode of The Twilight Zone that feels padded even at a swiftly paced 90 minutes.
Shyamalan generally likes to place a small nuclear family in jeopardy, and this film is no exception. High school science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) have their problems, but these are swiftly overwhelmed by a mysterious plague rushing from New York’s Central Park toward their Philadelphia home. It causes people to grow disoriented and confused, stop in their tracks, then do terrible things to themselves. Nature seems to be having one big freakout.
The couple takes to the road by train, then by car and on foot. A fellow teacher, math instructor Julian (John Leguizamo), and his 8-year-old daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), come along only for Julian to leave his child with them so he can search for his wife who took another route out of town.
Everyone winds up in the Pennsylvania countryside. The science teacher decides, on the basis of absolutely no evidence, that the toxins are generated by plants and trees and are airborne, so every breath of air, every flutter of tall grass or rush of wind causes hearts to stop. Even Elliot’s mood ring—yes, he has a mood ring—is going bananas.
But the movie’s own logic and logistics are never clear. If the toxins are in the wind, where is everyone rushing to? Why aren’t our heroes taking shelter in airless buildings or breaking into pharmacies for an antidote to suicidal tendencies? We’re told that the toxins attack people in large groups, but then an old kook (played with an odd stridency by stage and screen veteran Betty Buckley) kills herself with no one around.
The ecological idea of Planet Earth striking back at humankind might bring a smile to Al Gore, but in terms of cinematic intrigue and nail-biting tension, it’s just not happening