The unhappening

(NOTE: This review came out in June, and I simply overlooked posting it. Here it is.)

Review by Vives Anunciacion
Inquirer Libre

The Happening
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel

We’ve seen the signs. They don’t make sense. Apparently, only M. Night Shyamalan knows what’s happening. It’s a good thing and a bad thing for a suspense thriller.

The Happening is the first R-rated thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan, who made great impression in the movie-making world with the hit supernatural, The Sixth Sense. His next few movies – Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Lady in the Water – didn’t live up to expectations set by The Sixth Sense. In fact some people argue that his work deteriorates after each succeeding film. It may be a matter of taste, but if this is true, The Happening can be found in, to use a phrase from American Idol, the bottom three.

The first ten minutes is actually very well executed, setting up the atmosphere of the suspenseful story with a series of scenes that are quite chilling, creepy, and in one particular scene, downright shocking. All quietly done, ordinary people in different parts of New York start killing themselves in strange and disturbing ways. The set-up is effective way to start a thriller, and as the story continues, the mass suicide spreads across the eastern seaboard.

News of an apparent terrorist attack reaches a high school in Philadelphia where Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) teaches science. After the news is explained by the high school principal, the students are sent home and Elliot and his buddy Julian (John Leguizamo) decide to leave town along with Elliot’s wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). At this point in the story, everyone is surprisingly calm.

As they travel on board a packed train, the news spreads that something else is causing the event. The train stops abruptly in an obscure town, because the conductors say they’ve lost communications with the outside world. The people then start going in different directions. Worried about his wife stranded in Princeton, Julian decides to look for her and leaves his daughter with Elliot. From this point on, the cause of the mass suicide is slowly revealed, but still far off the climax.

Apparently there are unresolved issues between Elliot and Alma, a recurring theme in Shyamalan’s movies like Sixth Sense and Signs where the relationships between the male and female leads are under cloudy skies. But there is absolutely no chemistry between Wahlberg and Deschanel, the latter looks miscast. There are also issues between Alma and Elliot, a fact that’s not fully explored to give the separation of father and child more emotional weight. Leguizamo does the job fine, Deschanel does not.

The problem is either the script or direction, or both. Wahlberg, Leguizamo and Dechanel all suffer from poorly written dialogue, some sound childish and silly. Worst of all is Dechanel, who has nothing to work on her blank-faced character. The character drama stopped working because the characters have stopped being believable. The plot stopped being menacing and urgent, because it gave way to an environmental wake-up call.

This is not a cautionary tale that shows what might happen if humans keep plundering the earth. That was already set by another film by the former Vice President of the United States. The Happening is a poor narrative form of An Inconvenient Truth, set at the time when Mother Nature finally decides to get back at humans. What would humans do when this starts happening? If The Happening is the product of Shyamalan’s environmental conscience dying to spread such an important message, it may have been better had he finished the film on a more pro-active note, instead of cutting away to a different part of the world where the event starts all over again. As if the French never heard of the news.

There is, however, one reason to go see The Happening and that is the trailer of X Files: I Want to Believe is attached to this print. Quite an expensive way to see a trailer, but from the looks of it, the second X Files movie does have it happening.

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