My friend Bill, who I went to college with and who designed the credits for my two features, has also designed the credits for most of M. Night Shyamalan's films. He not only returns to the fold with a dramatic opening title sequence, he was also hired by Shyamalan as The Happening's second unit director. This means that Bill got to direct most of the scenes that don't involve principal cast, including all the shots of trees and an already infamous scene involving a lion.
The term "already infamous" is a key point when discussing The Happening: many people were ready to eviscerate this movie months before its release. So certain scenes that were played for dread are being howled off the screen. I feel Shyamalan's pain, as I went through a lot of this with the horror fan reaction to my film Claustrophobia. Like my film, The Happening is an intimate, personal work for Shyamalan, where he uses genre to share his ideas about what's going on in the world. (For those of you who don't know, the story is about a strange airborne toxin, likely spread by plants, that causes humans to commit suicide in horrific ways.)
However, I don't want to come across as having liked The Happening. I didn't like it. Really. But I think the director more or less succeeded in telling the story that he wanted to.
The problem I have with M. Night Shyamalan is that he will come up with a great premise, write it too quickly for its own good, then rush it into production – so eager to shoot each movie that he doesn't give its script the time, care, and attention it needs to become something great.
And so there are some big problems with The Happening's screenplay that I just couldn't overlook.
For starters, because the movie's about suicide and not homicide, there's little danger for the main characters: not once do you believe that stars Mark Wahlberg or Zooey Deschanel are at risk of inhaling the toxin and committing suicide, so where's the tension?
Also, while Shyamalan for once does not fully explain what happened, or why some characters survive while others don't – a nice change of pace from a guy who tends to beat the audience over the head with his explanations (and I'm including The Sixth Sense in that assessment) – the results feel vague. He just doesn't give us enough to go on. (I did hear about the rationale a while ago; perhaps there was something in the script which was cut.) I also defy anybody to explain to me why, at the end of the film, people are walking around in short sleeves in Philadelphia and Paris when it's supposed to be the middle of winter!
The performances are wildly variable: Wahlberg is as earnest as Shyamalan, but he's stiff and in need of more direction; the usually spunky Deschanel seems to be in a trance; Betty Buckley hams it up mercilessly as an off-kilter widow the couple meets. Excellent actors have elevated films like The Village and Unbreakable. Here, Shyamalan's B-level cast is not up to the task, and thus much of the dialogue remains awkward, the character relationships unformed.
I have a feeling that, in the coming years, The Happening will find its audience. I think M. Night Shyamalan has delivered some interesting ideas and images, which people will start discussing more seriously once the anti-Shyamalan sentiment has died down. But the film left me cold; it even lacks the taut suspense that's usually Shyamalan's saving grace.
On the upside, James Newton Howard – who, more than even my friend Bill or cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, is Shyamalan's most consistent collaborator – submits another outstanding score. And I'm very proud of Bill's first foray into second unit directing. But the film, while not nearly as bad as the wags want you to think it is, still warrants a pass.