Note to M. Night Shyamalan: No matter which angle you shoot it from, a mild summer breeze is not terrifying. A hurricane, absolutely; a tornado, most certainly; a typhoon, indubitably. Hell, even an especially large dust devil might prove capable of jangling the nerves of some particularly sensitive anemophobics. Unfortunately (at least for Shyamalan), the continuous scenes of trees ominously rustling in the breeze or fields of grass churning like a menacing green ocean throughout The Happening mostly elicit feelings of tranquility and inner peace rather than paralyzing fear and insurmountable dread -- the kiss of death for a film attempting to paint nature as the ultimate enemy of humankind. But Shyamalan's failure to make gusts of wind blow fear into the hearts of moviegoers isn't the only reason why The Happening fails to click as an effective horror film; weak direction of actors, a meandering screenplay, and a particularly anemic ending all add up to a misfire that -- despite an admittedly original premise and a promise to ramp up the gruesome imagery -- largely lacks any real sense of tension or danger. Sadly, since the director fails to ratchet up the levels of intensity any higher than in his previous films, the widely touted fact that this is his first R-rated film feels like a gimmicky (and somewhat misleading) ploy to convince moviegoers that Shyamalan has finally taken off the kid gloves, as opposed to a sincere attempt to grow as a filmmaker or branch out into more challenging and mature themes.
The Happening opens with a gruesome montage of seemingly normal people all over New York City suddenly and inexplicably seizing up and killing themselves in the most immediate manners possible -- regardless of how gruesome or painful. But what is causing this grim wave of mass suicide? As the problem begins to spread across the northeastern United States, Philadelphia schoolteacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), Elliot's friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian's daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), all hop a train bound for the country, where they will presumably be safe from whatever it is that's causing construction workers to casually stroll off of inner-city skyscrapers.
Those opening moments of mayhem and chaos are the scenes in which The Happening is at its best. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the action to move to the country, driving the film to a screeching halt save for one particularly tense showdown between Elliot's small group of wandering survivors and another, decidedly more paranoid group of refugees who have locked themselves securely in a country home. The concept of the film is interesting for viewers who are willing to accept it on face value, but the direction in which Shyamalan takes it as a screenwriter just isn't very interesting or frightening. Likewise, Shyamalan should really take some time to reevaluate the way that he directs his actors, as some of the performances in The Happening are truly embarrassing to watch. Deschanel in particular is a doe-eyed disaster as Elliot's insecure, potentially unfaithful wife, and the supporting players are uneven at best. It seems that Shyamalan is attempting to convey the sometimes loopy behavior of normal people attempting to function under unusual and extraordinary circumstances, but the only actors who seem to strike the right tone are Wahlberg, Leguizamo, and Frank Collison as an adamant hot dog enthusiast and unusually perceptive nursery owner. The remainder of the cast just comes off as if they're struggling, giving the impression that the director just couldn't figure out which tone he was trying to strike. Set against the backdrop of a breezy morning, the dialogue-heavy ending in particular is a real letdown. By the time the few surviving protagonists are attempting to talk through their terror, average moviegoers are more likely to long for a refreshing stroll through the park rather than quake in the safety of their comfortable theater seats for fear of nature's wrath.