Something's happening in The Happening, a mystery that nobody can adequately explain, and I'm not talking about the airborne toxin that's turning the industrial Northeast into a mass grave of suicide victims. I'm talking about the complete disintegration of M. Night Shyamalan as a director. After The Sixth Sense had us seeing dead people, the Philadelphia-based wunderkind seemed like the next Hitchcock and Spielberg rolled into one. He was a throwback stylistically - measured pace, stable compositions, atmosphere over action. Signs confirmed Shyamalan's talent, adding a dollop of humor to the proceedings. But it's all been downhill from there: Unbreakable, The Village, Lady in the Water. And with The Happening, he's hit rock bottom.
I'd like to say it opens promisingly enough, but it doesn't. The initial scene, set in New York's Central Park, where a woman sitting on a bench suddenly pulls out a hairpin and...well, you can see for yourself, but the scene feels rushed, as if Shyamalan had to be somewhere. From Central Park we fan out across the island of Manhattan, where people, after momentarily freezing in their tracks, get a funny look on their faces and then, using whatever means at their disposal, kill themselves. Construction workers leap from the top story of a building, the ear-shattering impact meant to remind us of 9/11. And although rumors start to fly of another terrorist act, they're rather quickly dispelled. Shyamalan, opting for the metaphysical plane, has bigger fish to fry.
It's a Gaia thing, in other words. And only a regular guy can figure out what's going on, apparently. That would be Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher played by Mark Wahlberg. To his credit, Wahlberg does an excellent impersonation of an actor who's actually been given something to play, but he hasn't. And neither has Zooey Deschanel as Elliot's emotionally reserved wife, Alma. We know Alma has trouble showing her emotions because among the first words out of her mouth are "You know I have trouble showing my emotions." Not only do these two not seem married, they don't seem like members of the same species, what with Deschanel's weirdly piercing eyes, which leave you wondering whether Alma's an us or a them. You also wonder whether Deschanel's ever acted before.
Coerced by the script into leaving town, Elliot and Alma wind up in rural Pennsylvania, where Shyamalan tries in vain to work up a fright with the mere rustling of wind in trees. That's kind of like being scared of your own shadow, but a good director would have gotten the job done. Instead, I wondered how big of a wind machine he had to use - a major disappointment from a guy who used to know exactly how to use the space just outside the picture frame. He also used to fill us with dread without squirting blood all over us. The Happening, his first R-rated film, serves up a heaping platter of red meat, including a couple of shotgun blasts that struck me as completely gratuitous. Isn't the whole 1001-ways-to-off-yourself thing bad enough?
Eco-thrillers are nothing if not topical, the culture's allergic reaction to all those inconvenient truths we haven't been facing. And The Happening definitely has hold of an interesting idea - that the extent to which we've broken the laws of nature is nothing less than suicidal. But Shyamalan can be awfully earnest. Where's the movie's trashy element, its sense of fun, its twist at the end? Shyamalan has come up with so many twist endings in the past that the only twist, at this point, would be no twist at all. And maybe that's why The Happening spends so much time on what scriptwriters call the slow reveal, a gradual unfolding of what the hell's going on. If Shyamalan isn't pulling the rug out from under us this time it's because he's forgotten how to weave a rug.