The following review contains moderate to major spoilers.

The Happening is just the kind of movie I always forget that I hate until I’ve paid my $11.75 and sat through the gruesome previews that always precede such films, at which point I remember that I’ll spend the next 90 minutes wincing and wishing I had seen something brighter. Like The Love Guru.

The Happening
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel

But I’ve seen every film M. Night Shyamalan has made, mostly because Christians seem to have a lingering loyalty to him. He is, after all, a director who asks questions like, “Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles?” His films acknowledge the reality of evil, the power of good, and the existence of a supernatural power. In Unbreakable, a man finds purpose in protecting the innocent. The Village testifies to human inability to build a community insulated from sin, managing to pose difficult questions for immature idealists and isolationist Christians alike. Signs tells the story of an embittered ex-pastor who regains his faith when “someone up there, watching out for them” saves his family.

Critics are less and less thrilled with Shyamalan, however; and they’re right. Dialogue in The Village dialogue was just a little florid. Lady in the Water, at least the parts I hazily remember, lacked Shyamalan’s former artistic precision.

The Happening is even worse.

In the opening scene, people walking through Central Park suddenly start muttering gibberish, freeze, then kill themselves. Pundits say that bio-terrorists have released a neurotoxin that removes people’s inhibitions toward self-destruction. High school science teacher Elliot Moore (an earnest, “resilient” Mark Wahlberg) flees Philadelphia with his emotionally estranged wife Alma (the appropriately wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel) and his best friend’s little girl, as the terror spreads from New York City throughout the north-east. As the toxins spread to smaller populations, the characters posit an alternative hypothesis: Plants now see humans as predators on the planet, and the mysterious forces of nature are fighting back.

Guess which hypothesis is correct? (Hint: This movie does without Shyamalan’s legendary twist ending.) The climax—a scene where Wahlberg and Deschanel tearfully reminisce about their first date and cross a field of waving grass to die in each other’s arms—is as embarrassing as the resolution is deflating.

Critics have faulted Shyamalan for his occasionally grating moralism—The Village certainly had its share—but at least his earlier movies proffered some thoughtful insights into the complexities of human beings—their capacity for evil, their capacity for good, and their capacity for evil in the name of good. In The Happening, the humans are passive predators. They invite these toxins simply by existing and they don’t do anything to stop them. The killing simply starts and stops regardless of their actions. (In this respect, The Happening mimics Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; but trees somehow make less believable, less chilling natural villains.)

Shyamalan’s other movies also include some redemptive elements—human strength in the face of evil, or some benevolent power overseeing events that we don’t understand. But in The Happening, he seems to take a peevish joy in finding especially creative ways for people to off themselves with whatever happens to be on hand—piercing their necks with hair sticks, feeding themselves to lions, and offering their bodies to be chewed up by mowers. Then his one note of hope is obliterated just before the credits roll.

Shyamalan has already proved his deft use of symbolism and his ability to create a film with layers of meaning. But The Happening is simply, disappointingly glib. He gives a warning we’ve all heard before and fails to give what I, for one, have given up on getting from him—an engaging answer.

Alisa Harris is an assistant editor for World on the Web and is a frequent contributor to World. She lives in Brooklyn.

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Alisa Harris

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