The Happening (15)

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The Independent Culture

After his previous effort, the fantasy-horror Lady in The Water, I wasn't sure if M Night Shyamalan could ever be taken seriously again. That was the movie in which a mermaid named Story needed to be rescued by Paul Giamatti from a slavering demon-dog, known as a "scrunt", and thence returned to her native "Blue World". Didn't see it? I don't blame you. The good news about his latest, The Happening, is that it's a vast improvement. Indeed, it shows positive signs of a director who has reverted to making films for adults. The not-so-good news is that he doesn't quite trust the intelligence of adults.

Shyamalan's forte is the evocation of dread, most notably revealed in The Sixth Sense and the first part of his mad fairy tale, The Village. The Happening, too, begins promisingly, as an ordinary day in New York's Central Park turns to sudden horror. High-school science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) has been talking to his class about the unknowability of nature, and, right on cue, a mysterious apocalypse is at hand. People have begun killing themselves en masse, and no one knows why. At first, the news media reports that it's a terrorist plot to poison the air with neurotoxins, with the whole of north-east America under threat. But then they realise it's not a man-made calamity at all – this time, the enemy, it seems, is the world around us.

The revenge of Mother Nature is quite an eerie idea, and Shyamalan gives an ominous sign simply by swinging his camera upwards and watching the wind threshing the trees. The panicked evacuees from the cities keep looking up, too, much as Hitchcock's terrified townsfolk did in The Birds. Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), find themselves lost in a pastoral America that has quickly turned paranoid, isolationist and hostile. The pity of it is that Shyamalan's sensibility is so very juvenile. Having set up his horror premise, he dissipates the tension by his inability to write plausibly about a husband and wife. Deschanel has a strong, girlish quality about her, but it's sheer bathos to have her agonising about an apparent infidelity with a male colleague, only to reveal that they just had cake together. And when Wahlberg whiningly counters with his own story of non-infidelity, the illusion of adult behaviour is shattered.

As with any what-if scenario, there comes a point when you begin to examine the mechanics of it. The mass outbreak of suicides seems credible as well as creepy, and the sight of bodies falling from tall buildings has a resonance too forceful to ignore. But then you get to wondering how a bunch of stragglers affected by this plague of self-slaughter would actually go about the job when stuck in a field. Burying yourself head-first in a molehill? Feeding your body to a colony of ants? Death by lawnmower has a kind of ingenuity, but on screen it looks ridiculous. Unfortunately, a sense of the ridiculous is not something Shyamlan seems yet to have mastered.