One might charitably describe “The Happening” as a transitional work for M. Night Shyamalan. In an attempted rebound from the critical and commercial calamity of “Lady in the Water,” the writer-director has scaled back most of his characteristic touches — the contorted horror/fantasy mythology, the “gotcha” twist ending, even his trademark cameo — instead serving up a patchy, uninspired eco-thriller whose R rating (a first for Shyamalan) looks more like a B.O. hindrance than an artistic boon. After an initial bloom of interest, the Fox release will likely wilt quickly in the summer heat.
At the very least, Shyamalan’s latest will almost certainly be greeted with less impassioned scorn than its predecessor; unlike 2006’s “Lady in the Water,” it arrives in theaters unencumbered by embarrassing tie-in tell-alls or reports of overweening directorial ego. (And if there are any movie critics among “The Happening’s” many victims, the pic doesn’t call attention to it.)
Trouble is, it’s hard to imagine “The Happening” being greeted with much impassioned anything. Shyamalan’s story — about a married couple and a small child being driven farther and farther from civilization by a fatal airborne threat — covers territory already over-tilled by countless disaster epics and zombie movies, offering little in the way of suspense, visceral kicks or narrative vitality to warrant the retread.
A mildly creepy prologue unfolds one morning in Central Park, where several pedestrians suddenly freeze in place and others start committing bizarre acts of self-mutilation and suicide. (“Those people look like they’re clawing at themselves,” marvels one onlooker, in one of the script’s less felicitous examples of telling and not showing.) Meanwhile, the leaves rustle ominously in the wind, providing an early clue to the source of this strange, and deadly, epidemic.
Cut to Philadelphia, where high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) hears of what is initially characterized as a bioterrorist attack. He and his lovely, slightly kooky wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), traveling with math teacher Julian (an over-talkative John Leguizamo) and his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), flee the city, only to have their train break down in the middle of nowhere.
Julian abruptly leaves Jess in the care of Elliot and Alma so he can catch a ride back to the city to search for his wife. Hiking across broad, rather beautiful stretches of Pennsylvania farmland (mostly shot on location), the three soon hook up with other refugees, only to find their way blocked by fresh corpses at every turn — they see dead people! — suggesting the danger is closing in on all sides. Yet the fact that the infected kill only themselves immediately dilutes any sense of real peril.
Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock have been Shyamalan’s two most oft-cited filmmaking forebears, and the scenario here carries faint echoes of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and, particularly, Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” in that the nature of the threat here (cue more wind effects and trembling branches) seems organic rather than man-made. Elliot, being a science teacher, deduces what’s going on fairly quickly, spouting the occasional mouthful of botanical mumbo-jumbo when he’s not arguing with Alma.
As he did in “Signs” (which “The Happening” comes to resemble as its characters seek refuge in a little house on the Pennsylvania prairie), Shyamalan tries to show a family breaking down, then piecing itself back together, while an apocalypse rages outside its windows. Yet he never taps into what makes Wahlberg and especially Deschanel so uniquely edgy and compelling to watch, and, although both actors emote bravely, neither feels like an intuitive match for their underwritten roles.
While the R rating allows for more explicit gore effects than Shyamalan has resorted to in the past, the violent incidents are relatively few and typically viewed from a distance. The helmer’s gift has always been for conjuring suspense from silences, shadows and enclosed spaces, a talent that gets little workout here.
In short, this is a Shyamalan movie minus the bravado, the swagger; there are no audacious attempts to pull out the rug from under the audience, no ham-fisted lessons about the importance of religious belief or the power of storytelling. The director even limits his customary appearance to an offscreen role, a choice that seems sadly in keeping with the rest of this oddly hesitant, insubstantial film. The big surprise at the end of “The Happening” is that even viewers who’ve been annoyed by his tricks and traps in the past may find themselves hoping he uses them — or something better — the next time around.