After boring the masses with ‘The Village’ and confounding even his most fervent fans with ‘Lady in the Water,’ writer/director M. Night Shyamalan brings us ‘The Happening,’ a film so devoid of vision and purpose that I’m beginning to wonder if the former Hollywood wunderkind is deliberately trying to make the worst film of all time. This time around, Shyamalan abandons logic and cohesion in favor of inane plotting and character development, fails to fulfill a single one of his clearly established objectives or genre obligations, and completely undermines the talents and potential of everyone who placed their careers in his hands.
When hordes of ordinary citizens begin to commit suicide in dense population centers across the Northeast, experts and officials assume a terrorist organization is attacking the country with mysterious biological weapons. As the pandemic spreads, a group of survivors from Philadelphia -- a high school science teacher named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a fellow teacher named Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian’s young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) -- attempt to flee the affected areas, but run into a variety of problems along the way. Before long, a chance encounter with a botanist (who also happens to be an expositional demigod) leads Elliot to believe that people are falling victim to attacks from Mother Nature herself. What follows is a repetitive compartmentalization of the survivors, a bizarre and aimless meeting with an old recluse (Betty Buckley), and one of the most anticlimactic, unfulfilling endings you’ll ever witness.
How quickly does ‘The Happening’ devolve into a schlock-fest hack-job? Within five minutes, a nervous chuckle escaped my throat. Within fifteen, I was shaking my head and laughing out loud at the audacity and arrogance of what I can only describe as Shyamalan’s rampant egomaniacism. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like the victim of a cruel practical joke. ‘The Happening’ foregoes any sense of consistent storytelling in favor of a plot that peaks too early, unfolds too slowly, and barely musters enough compelling ideas to sustain two of its three acts. Worse still, the characters are uninteresting, the “villain” is beyond faceless, and the much-touted R-rating is a gimmick that rarely helps the proceedings.
More to the point, the plot zigs and zags all over the place while central characters die for no discernable reason -- the rules and methodology of the pandemic are so fickle and erratic that the real threat is Shyamalan’s pen, not the wiles of Mother Nature. In one scene, Wahlberg freezes at the sight of a plant until it’s revealed that, whew, it’s just a plastic decoration. In another laugh-riot, the camera slowly pushes in on a patch of blood-curdling… grass blowing in a light breeze. Frightening, I know. Countless other scenes pair foreboding music with menacing visuals like leaves, rustling bushes, and swaying trees. I suppose an argument could be made that the director sticks to his transparent political agenda rather well, but an easier argument could be made that he undermines any such message with insufferable cinematography and ham-handed close-ups of his actors and their pursuers.
Yet the most troubling aspect of the film is the fact that Shyamalan clearly thinks he’s delivering his best film to date. Even though he never officially appears on screen (as he has in every other flick in his canon), you can feel his presence in every shot and picture him whispering each line with the same faux-intensity he forces his performers to adopt. It’s a shame too. The suicide scenes are genuinely unsettling in that the people are so detached and oblivious to their fate. However, the bland mediocrity of the remaining production neuters any substance the director manages to inject into the film. Is this really what the writer and director of ‘The Sixth Sense’ thinks passes for edgy, clever, or gripping entertainment these days?
So why does a shockingly ludicrous flick like ‘The Happening’ even deserve half a star? Well… let’s just call it a gesture of sympathy for a trio of fine, intelligent actors -- Wahlberg, Deschanel, and Leguizamo -- who I have to believe didn’t realize they were signing onto a cinematic bowel-evacuation of this caliber. It doesn’t matter how much you love Shyamalan as a filmmaker, it doesn’t matter if you have a framed ‘Lady in the Water’ poster dangling over your bed, and it doesn’t even matter if you approach this one with no expectations whatsoever. ‘The Happening’ is a dreadful, dare I say appalling film, that is undeniably, unbelievably bad.
Well, at least it all looks pretty good in high definition. ‘The Happening’ features a sharp and faithful 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that renders exterior and interior details with an enviable precision. The film’s numerous close-ups look fantastic, boasting realistic skin texture, crisp pores and wrinkles, and well-defined hair and stubble. There's a light field of grain present at all times, but it doesn’t hinder image clarity or affect the overall impact of the picture. Likewise, while colors are intentionally subdued, greens and blues still pop and imbue the transfer with decent dimensionality. Skintone accuracy isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s also never a distraction (particularly considering the director’s chosen palette).
On the technical front, I’m happy to report I didn’t encounter any significant artifacting, noise, or edge enhancement. In actuality, I only had a few minor complaints -- the darkest portions of the image aren’t fully resolved in every shot, delineation is a bit inconsistent, and the film’s contrast could benefit from some additional tweaking. Regardless, the Blu-ray edition of ‘The Happening’ is an impressive effort from Fox that looks substantially better than its DVD counterpart. If you can’t overcome your curiosity, this is definitely the version to rent.
’The Happening’ features a notable DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that does a fine job handling both the film’s diverse environmental ambience and its abrupt, intermittent chaos. Dialogue is crystal clear, well prioritized, and evenly distributed across the front channels. The soundfield is particularly front-heavy when the story focuses on talk over tragedy, but there are a few key scenes where rear speaker aggression and resonant LFE support heightens the experience. I was also impressed every time the wind became a central element of the soundfield -- transparent pans and remarkable directionality made these moments feel as three dimensional as you’d expect.
If I have any problem, it’s in regards to the prioritization of the film’s score. Whether by intention, design, or oversight, the music either dominates the mix too readily or retreats from the soundfield too hastily. The score never seems to effortlessly co-exist with the rest of the soundscape, inadvertently enhancing the cheese-factor of Shyamalan’s close-ups and slow zooms. Even so, it’s a relatively small issue that shouldn’t prevent fans and audiophiles from enjoying an otherwise efficient and immersive track.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘The Happening includes all of the special features from the standard DVD, presents the video content in high definition, and even includes a pair of exclusive featurettes. Still, the supplemental package as a whole is rather thin and lacks a much-needed director’s commentary.
Honestly, I can’t think of any more adjectives to properly describe the unadulterated waste of time and money that is ‘The Happening.’ M. Night Shyamalan has fallen from the upper ranks of Hollywood filmmaking to the sort of straight-to-video muck I wouldn’t pluck out of a bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Thankfully, aside from a lackluster supplemental package, the Blu-ray edition of ‘The Happening’ offers an impressive audio/video presentation that makes this disc a clear upgrade from the standard DVD. If you absolutely must watch ‘The Happening,’ watch it in high definition. However, if I can save you the heartache and disgust, skip either one and spend your money elsewhere.