The Happening

Year: 2008
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Producer: M Night Shyamalan
Writer: M Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Alan Ruck, M Night Shyamalan
M Night Shyamalan's career has been the epitome of the law of diminishing returns, each film less spectacular and less well received than the last. He still wields masterful visual storytelling skills, but every new film seems to be missing something.

This time the idea is superb, the execution far less so. His trademark sense of grandiosity in the performances and staging is misplaced, and several aspects of the story – from tonal beats to whole characters and subplots – are simply off, as if they belong to another film. By contrast, some scenes are still shocking and striking in a way only he and filmmakers he once compared himself to (like Spielberg) can manage.

He's also the guy who perfected the twist as a marketing tool, and this time the twist is the entire movie, the premise of which was brilliantly concealed and teased about in the enigmatic marketing campaign – from the poster of abandoned cars on a country road to the horror-toned trailer.

If you don't know the secret and the answer to the Happening stop reading now, because it's impossible to talk about what a great premise the film has without disclosing it. Humans, the movie contends, have done so much damage to the planet that vegetation around the world spontaneously gives off a toxin that chemically inhibits the self-preservation drive of humans.

Biochemically rather than with some form of intelligent malice, the Earth has deemed us a threat, and is responding accordingly. We learn as much from a combination of news reports watched by panicked citizens and a throwaway comment by a secondary character.

It starts in New York's Central Park, where everybody suddenly freezes still and starts behaving strangely, from walking backwards to plunging hairclips into their necks. The expected panic ensues – is it a nerve agent deployed by terrorists? – before the phenomenon starts spreading across the whole north eastern US.

And there the brilliance stops. As married couple Elliot (Wahlberg) and wife Alma (Deschanel) go on the run with his colleague's young daughter, it becomes simply a chase movie with a few things that go bump in the night thrown in.

To be fair many of them are cinematically effective no matter how irrelevant they seem. Sure, the crazy old lady whose house they hole up in at the end is a distraction more than a narrative element, but once the frightened city slickers learn what's actually going on, a baleful wind approaching across the grass becomes like a dark cellar at midnight.

Shyamalan hasn't lost it as many are contending, and the movie has already nearly tripled its budget, but this is one of those rare arguments against the auteur and in favour of committee filmmaking, test screenings, etc. His self of self-importance needed to be scaled back.

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