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Stuff Happens

M. Night Shyamalan returns to the big screen.

12:00 AM, Jun 13, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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THE RISE AND FALL of M. Night Shyamalan has been almost Wellesian.

After bursting onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan followed up with two very solid, very underrated, films: Unbreakable and Signs. After that, however, he began to falter. Pigeonholed as "the director whose movies all have crazy twists" his next film, The Village, devolved into self-parody: Each time the audience thought they had come to the twist, Shyamalan threw another kink into the storyline.

Then came Lady in the Water, which has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Shyamalan turned in the script to his bosses at Disney, who had the temerity to tell him the truth: It didn't make sense. Stung by the criticism from his longtime benefactors, Shyamalan left Disney in a snit, taking Lady to a new studio and burning his bridges by recounting private conversations with studio heads in Michael Bamberger's hagiographic biography, The Man Who Heard Voices. Of course, Disney was right: Lady in the Water is a self-indulgent mess, the product of man enamored with his own prowess as writer and director. Not only is it the worst film of Shyamalan's career, it may well be the worst big-budget film of the decade.

The chatter soon started: Night's washed up, he's lost it, he needs a collaborator to rein in his sillier impulses. The visual acumen is there, but the storytelling talent is gone. He's done. Well, if the reaction after a critics' screening in Washington is any indication, The Happening will be similarly trashed. And in fairness, the critics will make some legitimate points: This is a fundamentally silly movie. It's like The Ten Commandments for the enviro-religious set.

Faced with the horror of what appears to be a terrorist attack across the Northeast, science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) flees Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Our quartet becomes a trio when Julian abandons his daughter to chase after his wife, who missed the train and caught the bus to Princeton.

Leaving aside the notion that a father would abandon his 10-year-old child to track down a grown woman traveling to the heart of a terrorist hotspot, The Happening quickly descends to Sci-Fi Channel ridiculousness. It turns out that the events taking place aren't a terrorist attack but nature taking her revenge against mankind for--well, something. Pollution, perhaps? Maybe global warming. It's never really clear why the trees and grass and bushes and shrubs are releasing a toxin into the air that causes every human being in a large group to kill themselves.

Nor does it help that the acting is almost uniformly terrible. If Shyamalan has a genuine weakness it's his inability to direct actors. His visual sense is great--The Happening looks fantastic--but the acting is appalling. Wahlberg regresses to the novice we saw in Boogie Nights while Deschanel simply bugs out her eyes to show shock, anger, happiness, sadness. Shyamalan was lucky in his first films, working with veterans like Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mel Gibson--performers who need little direction since they already possess an ingrained on-screen persona. But Wahlberg's range is limited, and great performances need to be coaxed out of him. Like the actors in Lady in the Water, The Happening's stars all appear to be lost onscreen.

It doesn't help that they don't have much to work with. The script is deficient--the dialogue stilted, "the happening" not adequately explained--and the plot is unbelievable. Which is too bad, because the basic idea is interesting: What if plants developed a self-defense mechanism against humans, as they have for moths and other destructive parasites? Near the beginning of The Happening Wahlberg quizzes his class on Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious affliction linked to the disappearance of honey bees around the world. What if it happened to us? Or what if it was just the test run for a human apocalypse?

None of these questions are answered, and none are asked. Instead we're told that we will never understand: "It was an act of nature!" a television talking head proclaims. And that's that. Environmentalism is now religion. No explanations are necessary, and lacking faith in ecology, or questioning its mysterious ways, is heresy.

Unfortunately, The Happening is not a return to form for Shyamalan, although it's certainly an improvement on Lady in the Water. With a little help on the script it might have been a great movie. Next time M. Night Shyamalan should deign to work with some collaborators.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.