What a bad rap this picture has gotten. Reviewers have positively pounced on it. Many seem to relish the opportunity to pronounce the career of M. Night Shyamalan officially dead on its arrival. I’m not certain I understand the phenomenon. Are we so overloaded with truly innovative and talented directors that we feel the population needs to be brought under control, the way hunting season thins the deer herd? Even if this were a disappointing work, it wouldn’t merit the critical laceration it has already undergone.
And the thing is, it’s not a disappointment, not even remotely. With The Happening, Shyamalan has not simply returned to form; he’s succeeded in inventing a new one. The Sixth Sense and Signs rank with movie history’s most watchable supernatural thrillers. His latest — every bit as eerie, suspenseful and rich with indelible images — is, I do believe, the cinema’s first natural thriller.
He might have called it War of the World in deference to both its subject matter and its structural similarity to Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In terms of plot, the two films are practically identical: A city comes under attack, and a regular guy hits the road in an effort to get loved ones to safety.
The city is New York. The guy is a high school science teacher played by Mark Wahlberg. We first meet him in the middle of a class discussion concerning the mysterious disappearance of honeybees in recent years. “What happened to them?” he asks. “Why are there no bodies anywhere?” Several students hazard guesses. A virus, one offers. Global warming, posits another. And then one kid seems to hit the nail on the head. “It’s probably a natural occurrence,” he suggest, “for which we’ll never know the cause.” Approximately an hour and a half later, a television newscaster will use virtually the same language to describe what happens next.
Shyamalan switches the scene to Central Park. It’s an ordinary day. People are walking dogs, jogging, reading on benches. A breeze stirs the trees, and we hear a scream in the distance. The director brings the focus to a pair of women sitting together. One appears lost in her book. The other watches as the flow of passersby suddenly freezes — and then as these statues momentarily walk backward before commencing to kill themselves any way they can. When the friend looks up from her book, it is to withdraw the hairpin from behind her head and insert it deep into her own throat.
Blocks away, construction workers hurl themselves from high scaffolding. The sequence unfolds from the vantage point of a single worker on the ground. At first, he thinks a friend has fallen accidentally. Suddenly another crunching thud, another mangled body. We feel his fear and confusion as worker after worker smashes to earth around him. It’s a brilliantly choreographed passage.
In short order, evacuation of the city is ordered by officials who, understandably, suspect terrorists have unleashed some sort of poison gas. Wahlberg winds up on a train to Pennsylvania with his wife (Zooey Deschanel), a close friend (John Leguizamo) and his friend’s young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). They naturally assume they’ve escaped harm. The first sign to the contrary comes when cellphones begin a buzzing chorus, bringing news that mass suicides have been reported up ahead at their destination. The second arrives when the train comes to a stop in the middle of nowhere. “We’ve lost contact,” a railroad employee explains, “with everyone.”
Some of the stranded passengers eventually catch rides out of the area with kindly locals. Leguizamo makes the painful decision to leave his daughter with his friends and go in search of his wife. (Bad move. It’s never a good idea to stray too far from the hero in these deals.) Wahlberg and company wind up passengers in a vehicle driven by a worried-looking chap with botanical expertise: He has a theory about what’s blowing in the wind and why.
It boils down to this: Some plants have the ability to give off toxic hormones to defend themselves against natural enemies. It just might be that some forms of plant life have evolved the ability to produce an airborne agent that affects the human brain by somehow flicking the “suicide switch.” Given the beating the globe’s greenery has taken at the hands of mankind, one can understand how we might fall into the category of natural enemy.
Before you laugh, consider the conclusion reached by award-winning science writer Richard Preston in The Hot Zone, the 1994 bestseller about the emergence of deadly rainforest viruses and a real-life ’80s outbreak of Ebola in a suburb of Washington, D.C.: “The emergence of AIDS, Ebola and any number of other rainforest agents appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of tropical biosphere . . . In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species.”
I have to say, I didn’t find The Happening problematically far-fetched. And, by the way, nobody raised the issue when Haley Joel Osment was running around seeing dead people. Rather, I found the latest from the filmmaker exquisitely directed, convincingly acted, hauntingly scored, imaginatively scripted and creepy as all holy hell. He doesn’t wrap things up with a trademark twist this time. Instead, he goes with the kind of “The End . . . or Is It?” closing note you used to see all the time in cheesy science fiction films. It’s a nifty touch, and further indication that this is anything but the end for M. Night Shyamalan.