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Happening, The

Fox // R // October 7, 2008
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author

Yeah, The Happening really is that bad.

So...y'know, that pretty much covers it. Can I go ahead and just cut the review off here?

I'll admit it: I kinda
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dug the first few minutes of the movie. The Happening opens as a couple of pretty twentysomethings are quietly chatting on a bench in Central Park when everything around them freezes. One of them thumbs through a book she has in her lap, stammers about forgetting what page she's on, and then drives a hair pin straight through her neck. The setting then shifts to a construction site where a couple of workers are palling around, and they're startled when the lifeless body of one of their friends plummets from the skeletal highrise to just a few short feet away. They can hardly call for help before another body falls. And another. And another. The camera pans up, and dozens of construction workers listlessly start walking off the edge of the building to their deaths.

There's no setup. There's no context. No one knows why this is happening or what could be causing it -- people all over New York are just killing themselves with seemingly no provocation whatsoever -- and at least for the first few minutes of The Happening, it's chilling.

...and then it stops. No, not the airborne toxin that's ravaging the Northeast. No, not the movie, which limps on for another seventysomething minutes after that. I mean anything about The Happening that might possibly look redeeming. The rest of the movie is anchored around Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a science teacher who tries to dart out of Philly with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) when the news of the outbreak first strikes. They're invited to stay with skittish math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez), but the trains shut down before they can make any real headway to his mother's out-of-the-way home. The Happening settles into a pretty comfortable formula from there: lurch around waiting for someone to decide what to do, watch in clumsily acted horror as one or two people are slaughtered, and seek out the most remote refuge possible as the crowd around them gets thinner and thinner.

Everything -- at least after
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the first few minutes -- sputters and dies. Shyamalan peppers his script with cringeworthy dialogue like "We're so much the same, Jess. I don't like to show my emotions either", "Whatever this is, it looks like it's not occurring about 90 miles from here", and "Cheese and crackers!" Pretty much all of the leads are sorely miscast, not that anyone could salvage dialogue like that. I'll suffer through pretty much anything Zooey Deschanel is in (no, really), but Shyamalan strips away the actress' usual off-kilter charm in favor of standing around doe-eyed in half-tears blankly waiting to be told what to do. ...and, I mean, Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher? No. Whatever acting chops he's picked up over the past decade have faded away, regressing back to the stilted, wooden delivery back in those days of ::shudders:: The Big Hit. There's a scene where Marky Mark asks a plastic tree for permission to take a piss. Played for a laugh...? Kind of. It's just one in a long, long list of "...the fuck were they thinking?" scenes, though, including a handful of survivors trying to outrun the wind (seriously) and anemic stabs at quirkiness like a hippie rambling about hot dogs and shots of old biddies knitting with gas masks on.

The suicides are too cartoonish to score any real reaction. I mean, one schlub runs himself over with a lawnmower, and some woman in a backwater diner shows off a video of a guy at a zoo feeding himself to a bunch of lions, limbs ripped off and all. I did find a neatly groomed neighborhood with a gaggle of homeowners and landscapers lifelessly dangling from garden hoses strung up on trees to be kind of creepy, and I dug one sequence where a pistol is calmly picked up off the ground and fired, with someone else quietly walking over and repeating the cycle the instant the gun clinks to the pavement again. Still, between that and the eerie intro, that's maybe 5 minutes? 7 minutes? of a glacial hour and a half "thriller". There's zero tension. Shyamalan lacks any talent in coaxing even passable performances from his cast, and his script meanders aimlessly and is weighed down by reams of agonizingly clumsy dialogue. Ugh. Skip It.

Video: Well, at least it looks nice. The Happening looks beautifully filmlike on Blu-ray, retaining its lightly grainy texture and understated palette in this extremely crisp, remarkably detailed image. I couldn't spot any flaws at all: no compression artifacting or other digital hiccups, no wear or speckling in the source, and no sign whatsoever of heavy-handed noise reduction. There are a couple of stray shots -- particularly after Elliot and company march away from a model home -- that look unusually soft, but I doubt that's a flaw specific to this Blu-ray release. The Happening looks terrific in high definition, and its visuals are easily the best thing about the movie.

The Happening is
Let's go talk to this lion. How's it goin', lion? I like your mane. Tell your mutha I said hi.
lightly letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and this Blu-ray disc has been encoded with AVC.

Audio: The Happening is more intensely focused on atmosphere than some of the usual genre theatrics, but it's a film with a strong sound design that's reproduced flawlessly in this 5.1, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Surround use is spry and lively, from the constant breeze in a movie that's predominately set outdoors to the dull thuds that pepper the soundscape as bodies plummet to the ground. The mix is bolstered by a tight, punchy low-end, and even its more chaotic moments never overwhelm the cleanly and clearly rendered dialogue, even if I didn't find the line readings all the worth a listen. It's an expectedly strong effort from Fox.

Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks have also been included in English, French, and Spanish, and the disc features subtitles in English and Spanish as well. Like most of Fox's day-and-date releases, The Happening also carries support for D-Box rigs.

Extras: Despite floundering at the box office, Fox has assembled a pretty decent special edition for The Happening on Blu-ray, and nearly every last second of its extras are presented in high definition. The extras are so charming and personable that I almost -- almost -- feel guilty for panning the movie like this.

The centerpiece of the disc's extras is a BonusView feature, which tosses trivia facts on-screen throughout the movie and lets viewers periodically branch off to related interviews and making-of footage. It's appreciated that Fox has also made all of that extra footage accessible on its own, and it clocks in well over half an hour in total. This includes Shyamalan subconsciously nicking the intro with the clouds from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, struggling to land on a decent title, lobbing out a slew of casting notes, touching on location scouting, and collaborating again with composer James Newton Howard. Among the other highlights are some of the grisly deaths that were never filmed, shooting the gallery of dangling suburban corpses, filming the diner sequence in a sleepy Pennsylvanian town teeming with eager fans, and how Shyamalan wanted to ground The Happening in the here and now.

The reel of deleted scenes offers optional introductions by Shyamalan, and these additional snippets of footage include a fight between Elliot and Alma that would've opened the movie, another viral video of the toxin at work, and extended versions of a shotgun blast to the head and the lion tamer being mauled. Even though I'm the sort of gorehound that should be into that sort of splatter, none of these additions really did anything for me. Shyamalan's introductions are in standard definition, but the deleted scenes themselves are presented in 1080p. The intros and footage run right around 15 minutes in total.

The bulk
Don't worry: I still love you, Zooey.
of the extras on this Blu-ray disc revolve around a series of short featurettes. "Visions of The Happening" (12 min.) touches on Shyamalan feeling inspired to make a B-movie cut from the cloth of '70s paranoid thrillers, Pennsylvania coming across as a character in its own right, and some casting notes that are partially recycled from the BonusView feature. "Elements of a Scene" (10 min.) runs through the different components in assembling a challenging shot of one of the movie's key deaths, from previsualization to computer-controlled rigs to flinging stuntmen in the air. Without this featurette, I probably would never have noticed that Clerks' Brian O'Halloran was on the payroll.

Shyamalan is followed around by a camera during one leg of the shoot in "A Day for Night" (7 min.), a set of fly-on-the-wall candid footage that captures the director as he sets up shots, chats with the cast, and peeks at storyboards. "'I Hear You Whispering'" (4 min.) aims the spotlight at Betty Buckley, the Tony Award winning actress who plays the disturbed loner Mrs. Jones, a focal point of the last twenty minutes of the movie. Other featurettes include a look at the elaborate rigs used to flesh out that persistent, ominous breeze (5 min.), Shyamalan going for the jugular while shooting his first R-rated film (9 min.), and a look at the logistics involved in shooting the sequences at the bustling 30th Street Station and on the train out of Philly (4 min.).

Rounding out the extras is a two and a half minute gag reel, although strangely, the outtakes are all culled from shooting the making-of featurettes, not from the movie itself.

The second disc in this set is a DVD with a standard definition copy of the film for iTunes and Windows Media Player-powered devices.

Conclusion: If you suffered through Lady in the Water and thought there was nowhere for M. Night Shyamalan to go but up...? Nope. This plodding, awkward, room-temperature thriller is the single worst movie by a writer/director who's already spent most of his career on the decline. The Happening gets the nod as the most bafflingly who-the-fuck-could-watch-the-dailies-and-not-yank-the-plug-after-day-one flick I've suffered through since Neil LaBute's retread of The Wicker Man. Yeah, yeah, the movie looks slick on Blu-ray, there are a metric ton of high definition extras, Skip It.
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