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Happening, The

Fox // R // October 7, 2008
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 30, 2008 | E-mail the Author
You know, I used to heavily advocate M. Night Shyamalan's work ... even when he was going through the gauntlet of ridicule for his last two films. Of course, Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs are excusable give-ins, as they capture the director at his prime as the go-to guy for marketable PG-13 spooky thrillers. The Village, though predictable from a mile out, still engaged viewers with his signature style of tension. Now with Lady in the Water, my affection began to fade when he opted away from strong writing to create a mellow fantasy. Deeply flawed, but still a smoothly-navigated story.

The Happening, however, hammers that last nail in the coffin of my continued support. Hard.

The Film:

Formerly known as "Green Effect" before changing titles to The Happening, it has the notorious label as being the edgier Shyamalan film that none of the big production companies jumped to finance, even more so than Lady in the Water's damaging effect on his relationship with the House of Mouse. Watching this final product, it's easy to see why nobody really wanted to buy it up -- it features a hard-to-market, invisible killing machine that strays from the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

As to be expected of Shyamalan's work, The Happening takes a simple route that leaves a lot to interpretation. In some unexplainable occurrences near a large city, several people start to get extremely confused and just start keeling over -- falling from the rafters at construction sites, stabbing themselves in the throat, even shooting themselves. Initial signs point to a bizarre airborne terrorist attack that sparks suicidal tendencies, but the amount of scientific evidence, as shown by Professor Elliot Moore's (Mark Wahlberg) emphasis on the "bee theory" early in the film, forces our thoughts to nature's wrath.

Mirroring the agoraphobic hysteria present in Signs, Shyamalan creates a biologically-centered "don't go outside" tension that closes in on Elliot, his awkwardly-acting wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel, Elf), as well as his colleague Julian (John Leguizamo, Land of the Dead) and his daughter. In a fit of mass pandemonium along with a huge chunk of New York's populace, they bolt from the city to find a place of safety. After communications fall apart all across the Northeast, the isolated spreading point of this "occurrence", they're stranded in the middle of nowhere to find out the cause of this spreading epidemic for themselves. Sounds like a promising idea, right? Well, it is -- and then Shyamalan runs his story's potential firmly into the ground.

In one of the most ghastly textual scripts I've ever encountered encapsulated in a not-so-bad concept, The Happening exhibits a blunt, indulgent attitude that could've been worlds better with heavy refinement. Talent abound is wasted as it floats aimlessly in rather annoying dialogue, breezing weakly in the same wind that passes along the evil menace that fuels the film's tension. The ecology behind Shyamalan's pseudo-sentient "plants feel pain" theme provides the only sparks of compelling material within the poorly-dialogued script. He has a creative mindset in the right place, but he forgets to give its skeleton the flesh that it needs.

The Happening consists of three core elements: science, dialogue, and acting chops -- all of which play out in frustrating fashion. Most glaring in that department is Mark Wahlberg, whom moviegoers have learned to call bluff on his acting capacity. After seeing what he can do in The Departed, and in lesser roles like Four Brothers and Invincible, they know he's better than this weak projection of weak dialogue. It's clearly his stilted delivery and discomforting vocal stylings that drive away investment from the main character -- though of all the roles he might play, he's completely miscast as a high-school science teacher. It'd be one thing if it stopped with him, but these odd behaviorisms trickle over into the rest of the cast. Even the quirkily-attractive Zooey Deschanel comes close to saving her character from this bizarreness, but she still doesn't come out unscathed.

All the blubbering dialogue wrapped around the absurdly executed tension builds to a plateau of erratic extents, one that doesn't even play up Shyamalan's one trick that he executes well. A twist, as clear by Lady in the Water and The Village, has grown less and less necessary in his executive formula. If the science made more sense, then the film's rhythm as a thriller might even be enough to give this rickety boat enough steam to power along. It'd even put better use to James Newton Howard's exquisite score, while here it works kind of like orchestrating Jello while it jiggles -- it's pairing strong music to annoyingly unnatural activity. Without his signature squeeze at the end of the flick, all we're left with here is inept floorwork void of a proper punch to justify all the dodginess.

I've done my share of defending for The Village over the years, as well as held back too much criticism for the feeble qualities in Lady in the Water, but The Happening's unsubstantiated and self-serving nature only cause infuriation. Shyamalan needs to realize that he's still got a great director buried within him somewhere, but he has to unearth more humanist and character-interaction strength than The Happening provides to regain his accolades. His efforts towards a studio-backed hard-"R" also work against his signature style of terror by casting unnecessary spotlights on his experiments in gore. Interestingly, the more gruesome and dark suicide scenes in The Happening are executed well; they're just glaringly out of place in Shyamalan's typically PG-13 style of terror. He should get another shot at a designated R-rated flick, but its got to formulate stronger character connections and expanded conceptualizations than this odd collage of both worlds.

The DVD:

The Happening comes to us from Fox in its screener presentation void of discart or case.

The Video and Audio:

As this is a screener, the transfer isn't a finalized product. However, from the looks of it, The Happening will be a strong effort with rich detail. It's framed in 1.85:1, mirroring the theatrical release's aspect ratio. As for the audio, so far it sounds very solid, harnessing surround capacity to strong levels -- especially with gusts of wind and the like. We'll update you on the digital quality once a finalized copy arrives. The audio seems to size up as such: English, Spanish, and French language tracks will be available, as will English and Spanish optional subs.

The Extras:

Deleted Scenes:
Several removed scenes from the film, including an excised introduction scene and an extended portion of the "porch" scene, are included. Each and every one of these removed bits were extremely wise edits on Shyamalan's part, ones that either furthered character disassociation or pumped the gratuity up to camp levels.

The Hard Cut:
Nine minutes are concentrated here to M. Night's feelings on making The Happening an R-rated film. It mainly centers on assembling a hard scene that involves violent death regarding a few children - one of the many scenes that pushed the boundaries of the film. He brings up Fox's motives in pushing him to make it an R-rated film, which does help a bit in explaining the uneasy tone.

"I Hear You Whispering":
Mrs. Jones, the crazy woman at the end of the film, gets around four minutes of exposition time here. It features interview time with Betty Buckley, the actress who plays Mrs. Jones. It addresses the potential of Mrs. Jones as a foresight into the future Alma might have, but that doesn't get conveyed in the film terribly well.

Visions of The Happening:
11 minutes of behind the scenes footage gets wedged in with emotional statements from the vast and crew about humanity's capacity to cope with disaster. The footage capturing the cast as they assemble production design elements can be rewarding in its standard making-of rhythm.

A Day for a Night:
This 7-minute feature capture M. Night during a full day of shooting, highlighting his statements that he spurts out to his actors, camera operators and director of photography.

Elements of a Scene:
Here' ten minutes is dedicated to the assembly of an important car crash in The Happening. It covers CG pre-rendering and physical crash mechanics at play, along with M. Night's direction during the scene.

Also included are a Gag Reel and a few unrelated Trailers.


Final Thoughts:

It takes a lot for me to feel strongly towards the notion of not seeing a film, as I'm an appreciator of cinematic quality of all sorts, but the The Happening pushes too hard on its negative elements for leniency. Branding Mother Nature as a vengeful killer is a mildly compelling philosophical idea, but the execution in the elements underneath its umbrella fail to grasp equal interest. If you haven't seen either of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers flicks -- or even the underrated 2007 "remake" The Invasion -- then seek those out, as well as Shyamalan's exceedingly more effective exercise in survivalist terror, Signs. However, The Happening is part biological suspense flick / part gore playground for the inexperienced R-rating director Shyamalan that should just be glossed over for your better interest. Skip It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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