The first stage is confused speech. The second is loss of orientation. The third is fatality. Welcome to the world of The Happening, M Night Shyamalan's latest thriller. As such, it has all the good things you'd associate with the director — a great set-up, a killer "what if...?" story, a build up of tension that's deliciously creepy — plus all the bad things he seems to stand for: sentimentality, notions that don't go anywhere and dialogue that veers from economic perfection to jaw-droppingly naff.
Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia high school science teacher. As the film starts, he — like Doctor Who — is wondering what's happening to the bees. Why are millions of bees around the world just vanishing? However, he's about to be faced with a greater, more immediate problem. Why, at 8.33 that morning, did hundreds of people in Central Park stop what they were doing and kill themselves? Why is it an issue? Because it's spreading. By 10am, the problem has spread across the East Coast of the US and Philly is slap bang in the middle. Something is “flipping the self-preservation switch” as a TV pundit explains. Is it terrorists? Is it a new airborne virus? A leaked chemical weapon following a Government cock-up?
The “whys” and “whats” though aren't as important as the “where”, as in “where the hell do we go to escape the threat?” That's the main thread of this frustrating tale, and the point the film starts meandering between the four and five star moments and the one star problems.
Starting with the good stuff, the set-up is a killer. From the menacing stop-motion clouds in the opening credits to the trail of unexplained mayhem, the premise is compelling. Sadly you always get the feeling that the pay-off won't be as satisfactory and it's not. Sure, the scientific thinking behind it is (terrifyingly) sound but, for all Shyamalan's abilities as a filmmaker, subtlety isn't exactly his strongpoint. He comes close: the strained dialogue between Elliot and his distracted wife Alma (Deschanel) feels real, ditto the relationship between Elliot and his slightly obnoxious math teacher friend Julian (Leguizamo). Unfortunately, it's all too easy to overlook the accuracy of the dialogue when Deschanel intersperses nearly every line with an enigmatic, 1000-yard stare and Wahlberg rattles on in a strangely pitched tone that's probably supposed to suggest “liberal teacher” but, instead, suggests “Ned Flanders”. In other words, The Happening is typical, post-Signs Shyamalan. It's certainly not the turkey other reviewers will try to have you believe, but it's not that great either. It's still better than The Village.
EXTRAS ** Four deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and five making-of featurettes — The Hard Cut, I Hear You Whispering, A Day For Night, Elements of a Scene, and Forces Unseen. An audio commentary just isn't happening ...