"Happening" happens to be intoxicatingly good

June 16, 2008, midnight | By Sonalee Rau | 15 years, 8 months ago

Though thrills and chills, Shyamalan sheds light on weaknesses of human nature

It's happening: M. Night Shyamalan has finally redeemed himself. From the filmmaker who has been in a recent slump (think 2006's muddy "Lady in the Water") comes "The Happening," a film that will pleasantly surprise Shyamalan skeptics and recalls his better earlier work, like "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs."

The movie chronicles a day and a half of terror in the northeastern United States. A mysterious toxin being released in parks and cities in many states is causing people to become disoriented and suicidal. The protagonist, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a science teacher who is, appropriately, giving his students a lecture on how "there are some things in nature that we will never understand," when he learns of the pandemic. Soon after, he and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) along with his friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) leave Philadelphia to distance themselves from the zone under threat. However, after everyone in the Northeast, including Julian, eventually loses their life to the invisible pestilence, Elliot, Alma and Jess are forced to travel on their own. Initially, terrorist groups are suspected to be behind the contagious outbreak, but the trio soon learns that plants are releasing the neurotoxin, and they seek refuge in houses around the countryside to wait for it to subside.

It's a typical horror movie – graphic suicide scenes, suspense, mystique and all – yet so much more. The relationships between human beings are explored discreetly through the characters of Elliot, Alma, Julian and Jess, and woven skillfully through the otherwise frightening storyline of the film. The underlying message of the movie, that humans are destroying themselves by destroying the world they live in, is also timely. The ending, though somewhat predictable, is just poignant and ambiguous enough to leave viewers chilled with fear and impelled to ponder the deeper meanings of the movie at the same time. Shyamalan blurs the boundaries of cinematic genres, carving out one of his own: "The Happening" is a thriller, a tearjerker and a warning that the events of the movie could just as easily happen in real life.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the movie is the fact that actors who are lesser-known on the silver screen are cast to play both lead and supporting roles. This decision proves to have been a chance worth taking for Shyamalan. Wahlberg and Deschanel perform flawlessly, presenting characters that are atypical but endearingly real. Leguizamo, Sanchez and other supporting actors, including Robert Bailey Jr., who plays Jared, a boy traveling with the group, and Betty Buckley, who acts as an old lady who offers them shelter, are also impeccably suited to their roles.

The understated but powerful characters are highlighted by the movie's somewhat typical but charged and passionate musical scores, penned by Oscar-nominated songwriter James Newton Howard. The plain cinematography and close-up camera shots utilized in "The Happening" further complement the mood of the movie.

That being said, the movie does have its faults. Humorous moments in the movie fall slightly short of adequately undercutting the suspense of some scenes because they seem overly scripted. Some moments intended to be tense also fall prey to overdramatized dialogue, including one when Elliot begins reciting the scientific method to figure out a way to escape from a field that the toxin is present in. Additionally, certain scenes transition too quickly into others, such as the segue into the closing segment of the movie, making it difficult for viewers to follow the actions of characters. The basis of the movie seems somewhat implausible and requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers.

Nonetheless, the film delivers a pleasing balance of spine-tingling suspense, action and food for thought. The appeal of "The Happening" is universal and infectious – literally.

"The Happening" (91 minutes) is rated R for violent and disturbing images. Now playing everywhere.

Sonalee Rau. Sonalee (suh-NAH-lee) is a chipper Chipper and a would-be magnet junior. She spends a great deal of time playing tennis (Blair is red hot), doodling, reading, quoting famous people, quoting not-so-famous people and lamenting her inability to play the piano. She is also a big … More »

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