Twistmeister M. Night Shyamalan returns

Once in a while, you wonder how a massively high profile film made it past the rigours of audience testing, focus groups and other in-depth analysis. The Happening is a case in point. It’s a weird film, one that you would expect some of its individuality to have been kicked away in search of a more obviously commercial endeavour.

America’s northeast is experiencing an unusual phenomena of strange behaviour followed by mass suicide. The news channels are quick to attribute blame for these events to terrorist activity. Science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) attempt to survive until the situation passes.

The Happening is mostly peculiar for the manner in which the films passes by with sufficient interest to engage your attention, while at the same time being so utterly ludicrous that you can’t fail to avoid realising that it’s not any good. The initial premise does indeed promise much; the sense of bewilderment at what exactly is occurring is enticing and the creepiness and execution of each affected citizen’s demise is compelling.

But as the film progresses, the film’s unusual circumstances become swamped by cinematic moments so odd you can’t quite believe they’re happening. At one stage a news report shows a man at a zoo trying to provoke the lions into attacking him. “What kind of terrorists are these?” questions a news anchor in a moment so Chris Morris that you suspect it was lifted directly from the deleted scenes of a Brasseye DVD. The couple also encounter a soldier who has just realised that almost every road around him is surrounded by unexplainable death and yet he acts like a character from Sergeant Bilko. Meanwhile, Deschanel pulls the same face of wide-eyed horror for the entire film, a stance that could well prove to be acting’s greatest danger to eyesight since Malcolm McDowell’s infamous scene in A Clockwork Orange. Is the acting deliberately hokey as a homage to a fifties b-movie?

If that’s not enough, M. Night Shyamalan lays down his environmental concerns with all the subtlety of attempting to destroy a garden shed with a nuclear warhead. To a backdrop of cooling towers pumping out pollution and plants mass produced in artificial biospheres, we find Wahlberg and chums running away from the wind. This is no way to initiate a credible discussion on global warming and mankind’s impact upon the planet.

And yet, despite everything, The Happening remains on the right side of viewable. The cause is kept mysterious enough to maintain a hope of a satisfactory conclusion and the fate of Elliot and Alma provides sufficient dramatic ammunition. And even if you hate the entire film, it’ll provide another point of entertainment while debating Shyamalan’s career trajectory.

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