Excluding the opening credits’ lame time-lapse cloud photography and Twilight Zone-ish James Newton Howard music, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening commences with reasonable ominousness, presenting glimpses of New Yorkers suddenly gripped by suicidal tendencies, among them a woman stabbing herself in the neck inside Central Park and construction workers casually strolling off a towering building site. Though somewhat derivative of Stephen King’s Cell, this vision of mundanity transformed by unseen forces into violent disorder has a terrifying mysteriousness. Yet as most of his films confirm, Shyamalan is far better at setup than payoff, and the Sixth Sense director’s latest once and for all cements that reputation, as the ensuing tale of a husband and wife’s attempts to survive the perplexing Northeast crisis is stilted, ungainly and awash in Shyamalan preachiness.
In a Philly high school, science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) tells his class that no one will ever know the reason behind the worldwide disappearance of honeybees: “We will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding.” Cue inexplicable natural disaster involving “toxins,” which is initially pegged as a terrorist attack and, consequently, sends people fleeing urban areas, including Elliot, his unhappy, potentially unfaithful spouse Alma (Zooey Deschanel), math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). In the country, things are no better, both for the characters and the story, which undercuts its few terrifying sights with illogical plotting and dreary hints about the inconvenient truth causing the calamity.
Suggesting moments from The Mist as well as Signs and The Village, Elliot’s makeshift nuclear family deals with callous citizens, watches amateur-shot footage of the unimaginable, and locks itself in a rustic rural Pennsylvania house, with Shyamalan doling out a ham-fisted eco-friendly message through imagery (a car tire ruining foliage, puffing industrial smokestacks looming over a greenhouse) almost as clunky as Wahlberg’s disastrously wooden line readings and facial expressions. The star’s headlining turn is so blankly robotic, it’s tough telling him apart from the frozen-and-then-walking-backward citizens infected by the airborne pollutant, and thus decimates any interest in Elliot’s reconciliation with Alma or the larger crisis at hand. Well, his performance and the fact that the terrifying force everyone is running away from is, you know, a brisk breeze.