The first thing you should know about The Happening is that it's probably not as bad as you think it is. It still qualifies as another Hitchcockian failure for M. Night Shyamalan—the writer-director-producer no doubt coming soon to a TV network near you—but if it were another filmmaker's debut film, it would be heralded as having immense promise. It's Shyamalan's unrestrained ego—and the shadow of his earlier, better work—that inspires such enthusiastic derision from a contingent of critics both professional and armchair.
The Happening concerns everyday Joes and Janes dealing with a regional epidemic caused by an airborne toxin of unknown origin. Chief among them are high-school science teacher Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and his friend and colleague Julian (John Leguizamo). Shyamalan gets points for so loyally making heroes of middle-class Philadelphian rationalists, but loses points for saddling Wahlberg with as much seriously clunky dialogue as scintillating hypotheses (and it's to Wahlberg's discredit that he comes off as amateurish whenever the script gets silly on him).
To the extent that Shyamalan movies are pleasurable, the pleasure is in the unfolding narrative, so I won't spoil it. But I will say that the film's core frustration is that it's engrossing one minute and stupefying the next, off and on, off and on, for ninety minutes. The filmmaker conjures a scary premise, but immaturely sacrifices credibility by making the disease more than an aggressive killer —rather, it causes its victims to kill themselves within minutes of transmission. The film would be scarier without this silliness that's apparently present only to justify the marketing strategy of The Happening's "R" rating. The film's worst scene is it's most violent: a cell-phone-shot viral video of a big-cat mauling that features embarrassingly bad special effects.
No, when The Happening scares, it scares by putting the onus on our imagination, a lesson Shyamalan learned from Hitchcock and Spielberg, then convienently forgets from time to time in his latest film in a desperate attempt to pander to the gore crowd and reclaim cultural relevance (the film's first line seems confessional: "I forgot where I am"). The science of The Happening, though flawed, is also dramatic and intriguing, which is a victory in itself. The inquiry proceeds from the quote, attributed to Einstein, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." It's no cop-out for Shyamalan to conclude the happening is one "we'll never fully understand"—rather, it's a reflection of the scariest part of being alive.
In the film's home stretch, Shyamalan plays at directing a Hammer horror movie all of a sudden—an interesting idea that feels out of character with the film's generally quiet menace. Betty Buckley serves up a grandly hammy performance as an older woman who avers, "The world don't care about me; I don't care about it." Happily, the climax is an emotional one rather than an action one; unhappily, it hinges on a stupidly spontaneous choice on the part of the hero. The character relationships throughout the film are a nice try, a source of some humor and poignancy but ultimately undercooked.
And so the implicit hype of the title isn't quite fulfilled. Shyamalan crafts some fine moments (abetted as usual by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and composer James Newton Howard), but they're blighted by the filmmaker's dumber choices. Though ultimately not worthwhile, The Happening is sort of fascinating as a study in an emperor-with-few-clothes director who's lost the perspective that served him at his peak. Get this man a co-writer!