Review - 'The Happening' Shocks, Then Bores

Image from M. Night Shyamalan' The Happening

LOS ANGELES (AP) - For a movie called ``The Happening,'' not much happens.

M. Night Shyamalan effectively delivers the usual broody air of foreboding that has been a trademark of his hits (``The Sixth Sense'' and ``Signs'') and misses (``Lady in the Water'' and ``Unbreakable'').

And this fear-mongering story of an airborne toxin that causes victims to snuff themselves in nasty ways - shoving hairpins into their throats, hurling themselves en masse off a high rise, the like - induces plenty of seat-squirming.

The shock value wears off quickly, though, and writer-director Shyamalan strands us - along with Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel - in a boring cautionary tale with an infantile eco-message about humanity needing to live in harmony with nature - or else.

Thankfully, Shyamalan's not trying to pull great surprises anymore. He sneaked up on us brilliantly with an ending to ``The Sixth Sense'' that made just about everyone want to see it again.

Since then, his attempts to startle mostly have been flimsy gimmicks, though the end to ``The Village,'' while not terribly surprising, packed provocative notions about creating your own monsters while trying to shield yourself from the horrors of the world at large.

In ``The Happening,'' those horrors land abruptly and mysteriously as crowds in New York's Central Park become disoriented one morning, then start killing themselves savagely. The phenomena spreads through Manhattan, then to Philadelphia, Boston and other cities, trickling down to smaller and smaller Northeast towns, villages and pockets of people.

By way of lame explanation, a TV news talking head babbles some scientific nonsense about a substance that blocks the brain's self-preservation neurotransmitters.

At first, it's assumed this is a terrorist attack. But as the day wears on, observers realize - none too plausibly, given the skimpy anecdotal evidence and utter lack of empirical validation - that our green friends in the plant world are the source of some deadly toxin.

Philly science teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) and wife Alma (Deschanel) flee the city by train along with his buddy Julian (John Leguizamo) and his 8-year-old daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Stranded in rural Pennsylvania, Julian heads off to search for his missing wife, leaving his daughter in the care of Elliot and Alma, who join other survivors rushing through the boondocks to stay ahead of the toxin.

From here, ``The Happening'' deflates from its grisly, early promise to repetitive images of people running through fields, the unlucky ones suddenly stopping, then searching about for convenient ways to do themselves in.

By the time a guy cranks up a giant lawnmower and lies down in front of it to turn himself into chop suey, Shyamalan's images of mass suicide have grown tiresome.

There's little room for Wahlberg and Deschanel to do more than react in terror, and both are rather bland even at that. A feeble marital rift Shyamalan tosses in does nothing to spice up the drama.

Gradually, ``The Happening'' turns weird for the sake of turning weird as Elliot and Alma take refuge with a crazy old woman (Betty Buckley, the step-mom from ``Eight Is Enough'' - remember her?).

Shyamalan manages to keep in check the overactive ego that led him to take on tiny roles a la an Alfred Hitchcock walk-on in some movies - and the all-out narcissism he displayed by casting himself as a writer whose book will be the basis of humanity's salvation in ``Lady in the Water.''

He does slip himself into ``The Happening,'' though, providing the phone voice of a man with whom Alma has a flirtation.

The movie's vague, shame-on-us finger-pointing would have been tepid in the 1960s and '70s, when Hollywood condemned our rapacious species with more fun and interesting future-shock stories such as ``Planet of the Apes'' and ``Silent Running.''

Shyamalan states that the idea for ``The Happening'' - the entire structure and the characters - came to him in an instant as he drove through rural New Jersey and was hit by the thought, ``What if nature one day turned on us?''

Fine, nice start. But all Shyamalan ever came up with is a start, an intriguing impetus for a story that ultimately goes nowhere and says nothing.

``The Happening,'' a 20th Century Fox release, runs 91 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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