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The Happening (2008)

M. Night Shyamalan is capable of making good movies. For example:

The Sixth Sense: Good movie.

Unbreakable: Good movie.

Signs: Decent movie.

While some might deride him as a Small Name Big Ego director, he is capable of taking simple things and making them spooky as hell… which makes me wonder what happened with The Happening.

The Happening focuses on an unexplained phenomenon that causes people to spontaneously commit suicide in strange and improbable ways, like an entry of Final Destination turned inside out. It stars Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, and a whole bunch of other people that you won’t really care about.

Wahlberg plays high school science teacher Elliot Moore, who improbably subscribes to the school that accepts “hell if I know” as a valid and complete answer to questions. After hearing about a mass suicide of random people in Central Park, he decides to leave Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Deschanel) and escape to Harrisburg, accompanied by Elliot’s friend and fellow teacher Julian (Leguizamo) and Julian’s eight-year-old daughter Jess. Julian’s wife is stuck in Philadelphia but expected to join them later. Complicating matters is the fact that Elliot and Alma seem to be having marital difficulties. I say seem because aside from Alma getting e-stalked by some guy named Joey – which Elliot doesn’t know about for two-thirds of the movie – there seems to be no real reason for this. At all.

Of course, when the train loses radio contact with the other stations, it stops off in a small town to drop of the passengers, leaving Our Intrepid Heroes to try to find their own way to Harrisburg, only to find that Harrisburg has been afflicted with mass suicides as well. A random botanist suggests that perhaps the plants are releasing a chemical that turns off the human survival instinct (though in practice it seems more like whatever it is throws the switch all the way into reverse), and as time passes it appears that the phenomenon is affecting smaller and smaller groups of people, driving people to seek out unpopulated areas (instead of scattering, because a whole bunch of people flocking to an unpopulated area is going to very quickly make it not unpopulated), while avoiding routes and areas already strewn with dead bodies. Meanwhile, Elliot is trying to remain scientific about this whole thing, even though ultimately the phenomenon is exactly following the Shit Happens That We Can’t Understand line of thinking he demonstrated at the beginning.

While Shyamalan (maybe) tried to evoke the same feelings of suspense that Alfred Hitchcock did with The Birds, presenting a strange occurance that we can neither comprehend nor stop, ultimately the clunky writing and half-assed acting took away from any promise the plot had. The dialogue was awkward. The expository scenes were shoehorned in. Of the core cast, John Leguizamo was the best-established actor, and the most wasted. Zooey Deschanel mainly acted with her huge soulful eyes, and Mark Wahlberg frequently looked constipated. Shyamalan’s later assertion that this was supposed to be a post-modern B-movie seemed like he was just trying to save face, especially in the wake of his critical flop Lady in the Water. While the concept of a toxin that makes us commit suicide seemed like a perfectly terrifying idea, ultimately this movie falls flat.

Now, I freely admit that I have seen some bad movies. Most bad movies I’ve seen are entertaining in spite or because of their badness. This one just struck me as an awkward bashing together of things that individually can be found in entertaining B Movies but together in this combination do not happen to make an entertaining B Movie. Give this one a miss.

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