06 October 2008

The Happening

The Happening

The honeymoon has long been over for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. Take a look at the reviews of his latest movie, The Happening, available tomorrow (Oct. 7) on DVD.

With 163 reviews counted, the Web site Rotten Tomatoes calculates only 18 percent are positive. Just 12 percent of 33 "top critics" gave positive reviews.

That's down even from Shyamalan's poorly received fairy tale—and box office flop—Lady in the Water (2006), which has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 24 percent.

The Happening is far from a perfect film, but it's hardly deserving of the vicious reviews it received when it opened in theaters back in June. Many critics seemed to take delight in attacking both the movie and Shyamalan himself:

"We don't care. It doesn't matter if they live or die, if there's a happy ending, or some kind of twist. The Happening is a movie to walk out of, sleep through, or—best of all—not to bother with." — James Berardinelli, Reelviews

"The true disaster on display in The Happening is Shyamalan's career hitting rock bottom." — Geoff Berkshire, Metromix.com

"(Mark) Wahlberg turns in one of his worst performances ever, but then he's saddled with preposterous scenes (like one where he tries to placate a ficus) and such lame lines as 'Could this really be happening?' Funny, I was wondering the same thing myself." — Andrew Gronvall, Chicago Reader

"Holy Mother of God ... this is awful." — Bob Grimm, Reno News and Review

I don't know what these critics watched, but I saw a movie that takes advantage of Shyamalan's first R rating, with disturbing images that find their way into your head and linger there.

It becomes even more unsettling as it juxtaposes horror elements (an airborne toxin leaves those it affects zombielike, their only aim to kill themselves, which they do in increasingly shocking ways—the guy with the lawnmower wins the award for creativity); relationship drama (Alma [Zooey Deschanel] is plagued with guilt after having thoughts of cheating on her husband, high school science teacher Elliot [Mark Wahlberg]); and humor (the kooky husband-and-wife nursery owners [Frank Collison, Victoria Clark] are the only ones who have figured out the plants are behind the crisis; they also love hot dogs).

The movie, produced, written and directed by Shyamalan, follows Elliot, Alma and a handful of others, including Elliot's math teacher buddy Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) as the toxin spreads across the Northeast, forcing them to flee from Philadelphia.

The Happening is an environmental horror movie, which proved to be problematic at the box office (it grossed $64.5 million domestically, the second lowest total for Shyamalan, who has topped $200 twice before). How do you sell a horror movie with no monster, no bad guy for our heroes to vanquish?

Another question: Are the protagonists heroes? No, not really. All they want to do is survive. They aren't saving the world from ruin—they couldn't do that even if they tried. What they are running from is simply an act of nature. And in the end, all they really do is run and hide—Shyamalan builds it up, then offers nothing resembling a climax. He is a stubborn filmmaker who is convinced that his way is just only the right way, but the only way. I can see how some people—especially critics—might resent that. It rubs me the wrong way, too, sometimes, but then again, he has made only one truly bad film (Lady in the Water) and a pair of movies bordering on greatness (The Sixth Sense, Signs).

The Happening is not your run-of-the-mill horror movie. It is flawed, to be sure, but infinitely more interesting than a guy in a mask slaughtering teenagers. It's worth a look.

Grade: B

(Rated R for violent and disturbing images. 91 minutes.)

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