The Happening: Suspense drama. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. (R. 91 minutes. At Bay Area theaters. See complete film lists and show times, and purchase tickets for choice theaters, at SFGate.com/movies.)
M. Night Shyamalan made "The Sixth Sense" in 1999, and things haven't been going right for him ever since. His new film, "The Happening," is his best so far this decade, and even then, it falls short of its filmmaker's aspirations. It's an entertaining movie, which is half the game, but it's not scary, which it should be. Neither is it something to be taken seriously, though it's intended to be.
Without looking over Shyamalan's shoulder, it would be impossible to diagnose the job precisely, but by watching his movies, it's easy to do a guess. He's being apprehensive with his talent. He's not being free and letting it spread out but forcing it to compress.
All fine art is a dance between inspiration and control, and ever since "The Sixth Sense" Shyamalan have been authorship tight instead of loose. Shyamalan will acquire a great thought - for example, "The Happening," which have a mulct premiss - but instead of letting his thought take a breath and develop and see where it might go, he leaps all over it and prematurely determines it into a story. He allows his mind boot in far too early into the process, muscling his imaginativeness into arbitrary structures. Instead of confidently allowing his thoughts to uncover the word form they desire to take, he jams them into some preconceived impression of what an M. Night Shyamalan film should be.
At least, that's how "Signs," "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" looked from here. And it further explicates why it's so easy to place the minute in Shyamalan's movies when inspiration runs dry. It's usually the point at which we acquire to get the Big Message, whatever it might be. It's also the point at which he begins to acquire obvious, making every stranger, for instance, into a certifiable weirdo. (Why is David Bruce Dern yet to look in a Shyamalan film?) But unlike the Alfred Hitchcock weirdos, who are genuinely unsettling, Shyamalan's creeps come in to the sound of a typewriter. We see them coming and cognize where they're going. We cognize where M. Night is going.
None of this would count - who cares if Shyamalan fulfills his promise? - except that this film maker is trying to make something worth doing, which is resuscitate the classic suspense drama, or perhaps update it for the new century. In "The Happening," he gets in New York's Central Park, on a summertime morning, in which people suddenly stand up stock-still and then continue to kill themselves. They utilize whatever's handy. A gun, a knitting needle. Construction workers begin throwing themselves off buildings. What gives?
Something is in the air. Maybe it's a terrorist attack, in the word form of a toxin. Maybe some chemical out of a Central Intelligence Agency laboratory have accidentally gone airborne. Or maybe it's ... something else. Whatever it is, everyone starts evacuating major Northeastern cities, just to be safe. That includes Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a City Of Brotherly Love high school scientific discipline teacher, his sensitive wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and his best friend (John Leguizamo). They acquire on a railroad train headed for the countryside.
The stars are engaging, and the premiss is irresistible. That acquires Shyamalan almost there - and that's where he stays, almost there. (This is off topic, but have anybody else noticed that Deschanel is one of the most beautiful women in American movies? Seriously.) At Bay - again
Like most Shyamalan films, "The Happening" takes the word form of a national catastrophe, but the action gradually contracts around a smattering of fictional characters and ends up where most Shyamalan movies end up, with people in a small, enclosed space trying to maintain some mysterious, malevolent military unit from getting inside.
Once again, this is Shyamalan's fate, to begin out immense and end up small, cramped and enclosed. Are this secret plan motif a personal compulsion of his? I doubt it. My conjecture is that it's simply a effect of his process. Shyamalan takes tremendous thoughts and fourth estates down on them. He clutters and confines them to the point that they're stuck in a bantam room and can't breathe. Finally, when he acquires his thoughts so little that they can't acquire any smaller, he stops his movies. Thus, he uncovers himself: Plot motif as unconscious metaphor.
Neil LaBute is another talented writer-director World Health Organization got lucky immature and who have got an identifiable style that could easily have boxed him in. But he have been wise adequate to make other people's screenplays occasionally. Shyamalan necessitates that variety. He necessitates a opportunity to loosen up and draw from another side of his brain. And from now on, whenever he have the urge to compose another scene with people stuck in a room with bad things going on outside, he necessitates to allow that be the dismay bell - and bend off the computing machine and travel for a long walk.
-- Advisory: This film incorporates force and distressing images.
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