Soundless Apocalypse: ‘The Happening’ Review

Posted in The Screening Room by - February 18, 2017
Soundless Apocalypse: ‘The Happening’ Review

At the end of the day, if there’s one thing I can always count on to be a rock-steady constant in this blisteringly changing world, it’s that M. Night Shyamalan movies will never lack an interesting premise. Despite the fact that oftentimes, in just about every other aspect involved with coherent filmmaking he may act the part of a blithering idiot, he will always a promising tale. Thus, most of his films that are acclaimed for their mediocrity are all tragedies – they all once held that hopeful potential for excellent and original cinema, yet were promptly and unceremoniously butchered at the hands of a nonsensical script, stiff and unnatural dialogue, predictable plot twists, or some sick, twisted combination of the above.

And although The Happening is a failure of a film and I doubt I would recommend it to anyone, no matter how starved one may be for even the basest of stimulation, it does go farther to fulfill its potential for being a “good” film than most of the director’s other ventures. Set in present-day New York City, the film follows high-school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) as they flee the city after a rash of seemingly unexplainable suicides begin plaguing its inhabitants. In the most bizarre and sudden circumstances, people begin to lose their train of thought, they begin walking backwards, and eventually, many start killing themselves. Initially speculated as a terrorist attack by the in-film media, as the suicides continue, the number of possible explanations begin to dwindle until the only sane option is the evacuate the city. And so, Elliot and Alma, along with most the city, run. The curious thing is, and the thing that film focuses on the most, is the fact that what they’re running from has not yet been identified.

In this regard, the film is fresh and inventive. Because there is no deadly contagion, giant flood, deadly super-hurricane, or skyscraper-crushing monster, the evacuation of the city is unnervingly quiet. As Elliot and Alma leave the city, there is a lack of verbal panic, yet that panic can still be felt in the hurried whispers and ominous air that permeate the scene. While there is a threat, a fatal one at that, the lack of identification is doubly disconcerting in an already fearful situation. With bio-weapon wielding terrorists or a 60-story Kaiju, people feel fear, but they don’t feel the fear of the unknown because they can see and understand what might kill them. In the case of The Happening, that same morbid, yet still comforting security of knowing is not there.

Once they leave the city, Elliot and Alma travel out towards the countryside and meet a number of wayward vagabonds along the way. Some lost folk, some lost children, all equally afraid of that which they cannot understand. One of these people presents Elliot with a half-baked theory on what’s going on. In retaliation for the wanton destruction of nature that humans have failed to curb or even prevent its increase, nature has taken to wiping humanity using invisible hormones carried in the wind much like plants do in order to kill their enemies. And though the crazy conspiracy theorist trope isn’t the most novel of characters, his inclusion and theory further explore the theme of nature and its destruction at the hands of man that the film ponders right up until the end.

And that’s exactly what this film does – it ponders. It does not totally lack of a clear or judgment, but more often than not it is simply wondering and the relatively slow pace following the first act is reflective of that. Though many do, and have, written the sloth-like pace of the film as being boring or not in line with the opening act’s brisk and exciting pace, I feel that although those points have merit, the slower pace helps achieve what it’s obvious that Shyamalan intended the film to be. It’s a reflective effort; an art that is defined by how the audience is allowed to interpret and not in the way that all art is, rather, in the way that the film raises a few compelling points and, as you continue to experience it, you’re given ample time to form your own opinion on what you might do in a similar situation, or what you think the cause of the suicides are.

Unfortunately, for many, and even, at times, for myself, the snail-pace of the film does get a little too unbearably boring. What’s worse, the acting in the film is nothing to write home about either. Though the characters that Elliot and Alma meet on their way across the countryside seem believable, they lack meaningful depth and are blatantly there for cheap emotional pandering or to further Shyamalan’s message on environmental concern. Though Wahlberg and Deschanel are both excellent in their own right, they seem robotic and unfeeling when it’s not just the two of them in a scene. Though the film takes some time to explore their relationship and how it’s been tested in the wake of this disaster, more times than can be disregarded, in normal conversation with other people, both actors talk as if they’ve never met before.

Ultimately what’s wrong with this Shyamalan film, as what is wrong with so many others, is its execution. Though intriguing and it retains interest longer than most of his other failed ventures, The Happening cannot escape the mind-numbing boredom of its slow second and its anti-climactic third act. This, coupled with a lack of meaningful depth to its slew of side characters and a fitfully genuine relationship between the film’s two leads causes The Happening to fall into the same pit of failed potential that holds so many of Shyamalan’s works.

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When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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