M. Night Shyamalan is known for his ability to use the mundane to create extraordinary suspense. The problem is he is so well recognized for this technique, along with his super-twisty endings (his most noted being The Sixth Sense) that anything else leaves the audience feeling shortchanged.
You better hang on to your coins...
In The Happening people unexpectedly start acting strange. It all begins in NYC's Central Park where people suddenly freeze like they are playing a game of Simon Says. Then they find the most convenient way to kill themselves. Some use hairpins, others borrow a policeman's gun. Construction workers calmly walk off the top of a building and hit the pavement with a thud.
Hearing of the trouble in the Big Apple, officials in Philadelphia warn their citizens to leave the city. Schoolteacher Elliot Moore and his wife Alma (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) join the surprisingly orderly exodus, along with Elliot's work buddy Julian (John Leguizamo) and his little daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). But their escape to the Pennsylvania countryside comes to a grinding halt when the train pulls the brakes in a little town. The explanation offered to Elliot -- who seems to be the only passenger wondering why they are stopped -- is the train has "lost contact" with everyone else. Strange, because passengers are still using their cell phones...
If you get caught up in logic during this film, you will soon find yourself wishing you had more popcorn. Instead, the creator of this picture is hoping you will buy into the big mystery of why people are committing suicide in the most bizarre ways possible. (Strangely, the deaths become so far fetched the audience in my screening began chuckling while a zookeeper fed his arms to hungry lions and when a man was mowed over by a giant lawn tractor.)
Obviously this film, which is Shyamalan's first project to get branded with a R-rating in the US, isn't suitable for younger audiences or those who would be disturbed by such portrayals. Thankfully, content in other categories is limited to a few mild profanities and terms of deity, along with one mild sexual remark.
Sadly, the greatest issue with this film is its lack of entertainment. Shyamalan (who acts as writer and director) clearly has talent, yet it feels as though he's trying too hard this time. As well, the performances are forced and the concept just doesn't come together. Certainly it's hard to live up to the grand endings he created in his earlier work, but with this adventure you leave wondering if anything was happening.