Since the surprise success of ‘The Sixth Sense’, Shyamalan’s ambitious but increasingly frustrating films (‘Unbreakable’, ‘Signs’, ‘The Village’) have been all build-up and no pay-off. ‘The Happening’, likewise, has lots of clever cinematic sleight of hand but no actual magic trick.
Philadelphia high school teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is quizzing his students about the mysterious disappearance of millions of honey bees, when reports start emerging of a possible terrorist attack on New York’s Central Park. Together with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), Elliott flees the city on a train. But it stops at a tiny rural station: ‘We’ve lost contact,’ explains the guard. ‘With everyone.’
Vague, speculative news reports now suggest that an invisible, airborne ‘natural compound’ has induced mass suicides in densely populated areas. Does our ecological abuse of the planet have a nasty sting in the tail? Have plants instigated a targeted, coordinated attack on their number one enemy?
John Leguizamo suggests that Shyamalan’s ‘fanciful nightmares’ reflect the post-9/11 fear that something world-shattering might happen at any moment. Witness the shocking scene that echoes newsreel images of people jumping from the stricken Twin Towers. Sadly, for all his ill-focused Revenge of Nature eco-babble, Shyamalan lacks the courage of his apocalyptic convictions, so the film’s flabby (anti)climactic scenes are a virtual re-run of ‘Signs’, in which an external threat re-cements fragile familial bonds.