Click Here For Our Interview with Mark Wahlberg
In January 2007, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan offered a script he’d been working on, called The Green Effect, to several studios. He was just coming off Lady in the Water, his first true box office failure, and wary of another one, all of the studios passed.
The last time a studio had expressed doubts, it was Disney, on Lady, and Shyamalan responded not by fixing the script but by taking the project to Warner Bros, who let him make it the way he wanted. But for The Green Effect, Shyamalan wasn’t going to let his pride get in the way. Learning from his mistakes, this time he gathered up the notes the studios gave him and went home to rewrite. He returned a few months later with an improved script re-titled The Happening; Universal picked it up, Mark Wahlberg became attached, and here we are.
Perhaps that little story makes you optimistic about the chances of The Happening, which tells the story of a small family caught in the middle of a large-scale fatal phenomenon. Unfortunately, The Happening is the Shyamalan film you were dreading: a retread of some familiar ideas, only sloppier and less effective, it will further solidify the director’s reputation as a one-trick pony who produces diminishing returns.
Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel star as a married couple who, like the couples in both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, are having marital problems. This time, the “problems” are so pedestrian that half the time it’s played for humor: she went out for dessert with another guy one night and feels guilty about it.
Wahlberg’s character, a high school science teacher in Pennsylvania, is pulled out of class one day to be told that “an event is happening”: something is causing people to become disoriented and kill themselves in NYC’s Central Park. At first, everybody thinks it’s a terrorist attack, but as the whatever-it-is spreads all down the East Coast, to smaller and smaller areas, soon there are lots of dead people outside. Wahlberg, Deschanel, and a few other survivors frantically run for cover, along with a cute kid (Ashlyn Sanchez), the daughter of another high school teacher played by John Leguizamo, who leaves her with Wahlberg to go find his wife in one of the infected areas.
None of this is particularly scary, though. I’ve always maintained that Shyamalan is a limited screenwriter but terrific at creating suspense. The Village is not a very good movie, but that scene in which Bryce Dallas Howard is alone in the woods, and blind, and then you see something behind her, is really effective. Here, he’s obviously driven by the philosophy that it’s scarier when you can’t see what’s chasing you, but “it” is too abstract. The characters theorize
that it’s an airborne toxin, possibly given off by plants or trees and then spread by the wind. In other words, the “bad guy” is…the outdoors.
This leads to bizarre logic gaps in the characters’ thought processes, not least of which is their decision to spend much of the movie not sealing themselves in a room, but roaming the countryside. I’m also thinking in particular of a scene in which a soldier addresses a crowd by, essentially, saying “the phenomenon seems to be attacking large groups of people, so let’s stick as close together as possible.” It takes Wahlberg another ten minutes, in what plays like a revelatory moment, to realize that’s not a good idea. And every rule Shyamalan creates, he breaks: the phenomenon is attacking large groups of people, but then we see instances of people killing themselves when they’re all alone.
You also get the impression that Shyamalan himself realized that shots of the wind blowing wasn’t scary enough to sustain a whole film, so he loads up the movie with unnecessary “gotcha!” moments and downright pointless plot developments. Late in the story, Wahlberg, Deschanel, and Sanchez come across a large old house owned by an old woman who lets them spend the night. She turns out to be crazy and evil, and the whole fifteen minute sequence feels like it was lifted out of a completely unrelated, and very run-of-the-mill, horror movie. It has no business being in the movie and serves only to pad the already brief 90-minute running time.
The script is just sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Some scenes – including the opening Central Park scene and a frantic car ride with Leguizamo’s character – approach effectiveness. And there are a few great images, like a shot of dozens of construction workers walking calmly off the top of a building and plunging to their deaths. The whole conceit of people killing themselves is a neat concept, and one that seems like it could be milked for scares. But it’s not.
Perhaps that’s because Shyamalan is too pre-occupied with coming up with gruesome ways for people to commit suicide. The TV ads are all touting that this is his first R-rated film, but anyone actually excited by that claim is going to feel ripped off. There’s a tiny, tiny bit of gore in this film, mostly seen in blurry, faraway shots. The rating is a joke.
Wahlberg is going to get a lot of crap for his performance; one early review online said it was mind-bogglingly bad, and reactions at the screening I went to seemed to agree. I think it’s just a case of playing an undeveloped character and not getting any help from the director. The science teacher is a whiny, earnest, and simple-minded guy, and Wahlberg plays
him straight, spending the whole movie looking hurt and befuddled. It’s not a good performance, but I think it’s simply a byproduct of the material.
Oh, and did I mention it’s a message movie? We have to take better care of our environment, apparently. At one point, the camera lingers on a sign that says “you deserve this!” Look around your theater: that’s what every audience member rolling their eyes at once looks like.
Usually Shyamalan can hide his limitations as a screenwriter behind his skill as a director. Here, that skill fails him as well, and the whole movie falls apart.
Movie Grade: C-
A family goes on the run from a natural crisis that presents a large-scale threat to humanity.