The Happening is random and abstract—but that’s OK
A vague threat haunts M. Night Shyamalan’s latest
Welcome to the latest episode of Shyamalan schadenfreude, as we watch our favorite loopy auteur deliver the third entry of his WTF? Series, following The Village and Lady in the Water. It’s nowhere near as excruciating as those two, but admittedly The Happening will be cited as an instant camp classic, if by camp you mean earnestness met by derision.
As The Happening opens there is unrest in Central Park; there is trouble with the trees. Leaves flutter and passersby pause, blink … and start acting very strangely. Or, as one observer puts it, “Those people are clawing at themselves.”
Now, the big thing about film is that you show, don’t tell. Otherwise it’s radio with pictures. To have a character tell us what’s happening and then not show it is, well, cinematic blueballing. To fall back on that two minutes into the movie is an ill wind a’blowin'.
The big problem here is the premise. Not so much the premise itself (to give it away would be to give away the meaning of the film’s title), but how you convey the threat of an abstract menace. I mean, all of a sudden folks are killing themselves, but there’s no threat to Mark Wahlberg and his funky bunch of runaways other than the possibility that they might get suicidal themselves. Even when one character gets exposed and is supposed to seem threatening, there’s still no sense of menace there.
Ultimately the premise isn’t any sillier than a man wrapping himself in tin and flying about the sky, or delivering any moments more ludicrous than someone jumping into a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast. In an odd way, it plays sort of like The Birds without the birds, or Night of the Living Dead without the zombies, dread or nihilistic ending.
I was never bored, just mildly intrigued throughout. It was sort of odd—no peaks or dips, just a sort of sustained tone whether folks are yammering at each other, running away or shoving a knitting needle down their throat.