June 14, 2008 -- “The Happening,” the latest film from writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan, seems to represent a slight reversal of Shyamalan's decline. Up until now, every one of his films since “The Sixth Sense” was worse than the film before. Shyamalan's previous film, “Lady in the Water” was a critical and box office bust, when his loyal fan and critical base abandoned him. “The Happening” may slightly reverse that trend. Although I liked “Lady in the Water” better than “The Happening,” I think this latest film will do better at the box office since it is more of a standard science fiction film. Shyamalan himself calls it a fun “B movie.” I wouldn't say it is fun, but it does hold one's attention.
This is kind of a chase movie, similar to the recent Spielberg film, “War of the Worlds.” An invisible, mysterious menace stalks a small group of people who are fleeing a big city. People who are affected by the malady, at first thought to be caused by a chemical weapon, are at first disoriented, then they become violently suicidal. People kill themselves in droves in this film, jumping off buildings, cutting, stabbing and shooting themselves, running their cars into trees, etc. Hence, the film is not fun. A small group of people, led by science teacher, Elliot Moore (played by Mark Wahlberg of “We Own the Night”) try to escape the suicide illness and at the same time try to figure out what is causing it. Moore is on the run with his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) and the young daughter of a friend, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).
The three team up with an older couple who run a nursery. The gardener comes up with an idea about what is causing the suicide disease. In order to be safe, they reason, they need to get away from population centers. The disease started in major cities. It keeps hitting smaller and smaller towns. The group heads into a unpopulated area, hoping to escape the deadly disease. The disease relentlessly follows them. Their options seem to be running out quickly. They don't get much help from local people, who are wary of strangers.
The film does manage to build some tension, since the survival of the group remains in question right up to the end. While the story is interesting and involving, the dialogue is hackneyed and the characters are bland. Shyamalan at least has enough sense to take full advantage of Zooey Deschanel's amazing blue eyes. The camera lingers on them often. One mildly interesting character is a crazy old lady who lives alone in a remote house, Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley). She is about as scary as anything in the movie. The so-called science behind the suicide disease is not really believable, but it is politically-correct. I don't know if this is the kind of film that Shyamalan's fans can rally around, but I suspect it will do well enough at the box office for him to get financial backing for yet another film. This film rates a C+.
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