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The Happening

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The Happening
cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley

director: M. Night Shyamalan

87 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Barbara Davies
When people start killing themselves in New York's Central Park, the government thinks terrorists have unleashed a lethal airborne toxin. It's much worse than that, however. For the phenomenon is entirely natural. What's more, it's spreading...

High school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) flee Philadelphia, along with maths teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's daughter Jess, but their train screeches to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Worried about his wife, Julian leaves his daughter in Elliot and Alma's tender care. Our conveniently created nuclear family must now travel on foot, trying, along with other survivors, to escape from the danger zone. It soon becomes clear, however, that the toxin is all around them, being triggered by smaller and smaller groups of people. And there are other hazards too - crazies barricaded inside houses, shotguns at the ready to repel those desperate for food and shelter...

Having enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village, and having been intrigued by the trailer for The Happening, I was really looking forward to this film. To say I was disappointed is something of an understatement. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high for it to have any chance of meeting them. That aside, though, this film has some serious flaws.

Making a film about an invisible threat was always going to be problematic, so Shyamalan uses breezes to represent his toxin, leading to much atmospheric rustling of leaves (what a good job it wasn't set in autumn!) and waving of grasses. Unfortunately, that isn't the end of his artistic licence. He has failed to grasp that you cannot treat scientific phenomena like supernatural ones - there must be some attempt at logic and fitting them into the framework provided by existing scientific knowledge and the laws of physics. A moment's thought should have told him that the instinct for self-preservation is not the same as the instinct to self-harm, which fatally undermines the rationale behind all those OTT suicides. This woolly thinking has a cumulative effect, and The Happening ends up being unintentionally funny rather than the tale full of tension, suspense, and portentous warnings of eco doom that its maker presumably intended.

It doesn't help that the script is so unsubtle (when a character mentions a garden house connected to the main house by a speaking tube, it's obvious that it's going to play a part), and sometimes peculiar (all that stuff involving a mood ring). Character development is patchy, so that, for example, the cause of the rift between Elliot and Alma is implausible and banal, and two lads they meet on the road mutate without warning into foul-mouthed, aggressive hoodlums simply to suit the plot. The story bowls along, with plenty of action, but there are moments, notably when Elliot asks those pestering him to 'give him a second' and when Private Auster shouts "My firearm is my friend," that are frankly risible. As for Betty Buckley, her crazy Mrs Jones seems to have wandered in from another film entirely.

Which brings me to the acting... Throughout, emotions and reactions to events feel muted or slightly off kilter. Even Wahlberg (The Perfect Storm, Boogie Nights) and Deschanel (All The Real Girls, Bridge To Terabithia) can't bring themselves to deliver the dialogue they've been given with any conviction. So Wahlberg falls back on much frowning (he may need a course of botox after this) and Deschanel on widening her already wide eyes.

Science and science fiction are clearly not Shyamalan's strong suit. Let's hope for his next project he returns to the supernatural, and to form. Extras: for bonus material you'll need to splash out your readies on the extended edition of the DVD.

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