M. Night Shyamalan's latest, an ecological thriller, will definitely not sit well with everyone. While high on suspense, the film mixes comedy and terror so much that at some point, we get confused whether we're suppose to laugh, scream or cry. And that makes it a very, very strange piece of work.
Shyamalan has already proven that he can create tense moments like Hitchcock with his take on alien invasion in Signs. If anything, The Happening shares the same kind of suspenseful atmosphere as that film, and there's nary a moment when you can guess what's going to happen next.
Once again, as with many thrillers of recent times, the ghost of 9-11 stands ominously over the proceedings here, especially in the sequence of bodies crashing to the ground from a building. Mark Wahlberg plays a school science teacher who has to keep his wife and a friend's daughter alive when a wave of suicides sweep across the east coast in what everyone initially thinks is a terrorist attack. As time goes on, it becomes clear that there might be more to the "event" than just an airborne toxin released by terrorists.
The first half of the movie builds the suspense to an incredible, almost unbearable degree, but much of it is also offset by some comedy, mostly intentional fortunately. But in the second half, it becomes noticeable that this is one single idea stretched a bit too far. The characters keep running, keep ending up in strange places and meeting quirky characters. While I've always loved the character developments in Shyamalan's films, how he gradually introduces them to us and ultimately ups our emotional connection to them, we don't quite feel we know Wahlberg's and Zooey Deschanel's troubled husband and wife any better towards the end. They're like just another couple among the groups of people trying to escape the environmental horror that's creeping up on them. Part of the problem is that we don't get to see them interact with each other much, because Shyamalan is more involved in creating the feel of an epic threat to humankind, rather than two people trying to fix things between them and pushed into a corner by an outside threat.
But oh what a gripping storyteller Shyamalan is. He knows just how much to hold back from the audience and when to do it. His roaming camera manages to lead us on a leash, and allow things to suddenly pounce on us from a previously hidden angle when we least expect it. Or he shows us the effect but belatedly reveals the cause. Nice. And this being his first R-rated movie, there's quite a number of grisly and graphic deaths. But the comedy and thriller aspects of the film sit together not quite comfortably, yet they create a strange quirky dramatic order to things.
But all the good stuff doesn't take away the fact that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It makes you wonder what Shyamalan's original script, The Green Effect, was like before he had to make alterations until it became The Happening, to get the studios interested in it.