The Happening

The previews made kind of a big deal of the fact that this was M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated film. That was actually a surprise, but it seems it’s true. And you can tell that you’re watching an R-rated movie within the first five minutes, I think — I’m not positive of the exact criteria, but I’m pretty sure the way that girl in the park dies is no longer PG-13.
But this is a hard film to review. Not because I can’t make up my mind about it or don’t know what to say, but because I’m trying so hard not to give anything away. The twist isn’t much of a twist, but still. And I’m still mad at that movie rental chain that gave away the ending for The Sixth Sense, and I don’t need to attract that kind of bad karma. So I have a fine line to walk here, but I’ll do my best.
Mark Wahlberg plays science teacher Elliot Moore, who of course teaches in Philadelphia, because M. Night sets all his movies there. His wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, who I really only know as Emily’s sister) is just… weird. She walks around with those huge blue eyes and pale face and absolutely no expression beyond vague concern for a good part of the film, and though she keeps insisting that she just doesn’t like to share her feelings, I think that’s just to cover up the fact that she has no sense of humor whatsoever. Absolutely zero. Elliot’s best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) doesn’t like her, and I don’t think I blame him. But she’s kind of a nonentity anyway, so you don’t really need to worry about her.
The happening of the title is the fact that people are, out of the blue, committing suicide in various gruesome ways, starting in New York’s Central Park and radiating out. (See, I told you that Central Park is still dangerous!) And this is seriously gruesome. They may even have topped the whole helicopter blade trend that’s been bothering me, but I’m not sure. When I saw that particular gruesome death coming, I covered my eyes.
The twist, such as it is, comes from what’s causing this. Apparently something is making the brain’s safeguards against self-harm break down, but theories about that something range from divine intervention to some weird nuclear leak. The part I can’t figure out is why that makes people so actively kill themselves. It seems to me that shutting down those neurochemicals or whatever would just make you take foolish chances, like crossing the highway without looking. Here, they apparently can’t even bear to wait to find less hideously painful ways to die.

The brooding scientist, the traumatized little girl, and the scarily disconnected wife wait for the plot twist.

Anyway, best friend Julian has a little girl, Jess, and since Julian isn’t the main character, the main character soon ends up taking care of said little girl. Fleeing the cities, even the smaller towns soon become unsafe, and with a rapidly-dwindling group, Elliot, Alma, and Jess head out into the wilds of Pennsylvania. They meet maniacs who barricade their houses against nerve toxins (I always wonder if that would really work); a private separated from all his superiors and wandering around trying to act like he knows what to do; and even a little old crazy lady (Betty Buckley) who has no electricity and doesn’t even know what’s been going on. She’s also completely forgotten how to interact with other humans.
And… overall, it really wasn’t very good. I love M. Night, really, but he just can’t seem to hit the high notes of Unbreakable or The Village anymore. I’m not sure what’s wrong, but I went to this film with high hopes, and it just didn’t work out. People have blamed bad casting, which could be part of the problem, but I know it isn’t just that. Something’s not clicking anymore, and it’s really a shame.
So two and three-quarter idols — one for the whole atmosphere of the film, which is very much up to his usual standards; one just because M. Night is M. Night, and three quarters because they actually leave the Philadelphia city limits for most of the movie. Otherwise, the only good thing I really got from this movie was another reason for me to dislike crowds.