I want to give M. Night Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt. I want to say that, midway through The Happening, when a terrified Mark Wahlberg nervously approaches a houseplant and begins to address it in cool, calm tones—he is assuring the plant that he means it no harm—I want to say the scene's meant to be comic relief, a lighthearted break from the scares the rest of the film ostensibly provides. But I can't, because it's impossible to tell if Shyamalan means for the scene to be as funny as it is: Sure, it seems like it's supposed to be comedic, but then the whole film's kind of unintentionally hilarious, so who the hell knows. Either way, seeing Marky Mark plead for his life with a houseplant? Pretty damn funny.
The Happening is being marketed as the first R-rated film from Shyamalan, and it's also widely viewed as Shyamalan's last chance to remind everyone he used to make good movies. It's also so terrible as to be nearly unwatchable. That's too bad, because with The Happening's concept, Shyamalan's got a pretty creepy idea. The short version: Humanity's fucked over the planet to such a degree that Earth's plant life begins to consider us a threat to its continued existence. Enter an airborne toxin secreted by trees, bushes, and grasses; when the poison enters the human bloodstream, it causes people to kill themselves. As the event starts in Central Park and spreads throughout the Northeast, we're stuck with a so-earnest-it-hurts high school science teacher (Wahlberg) and his fantastically un-likeable girlfriend (Zooey Deschanel), both of whom run around and panic while Shyamalan cuts to portentous shots of the breeze blowing through tree branches.
It sounds silly, but the sci-fi/horror B-movie plot is actually the strongest aspect of the film—the problem comes with, well, everything else. Shyamalan has a solid idea, but he forces it through a half-assed script; he's cast good actors, but he makes them play incredibly irritating characters; he refrains from his usual crutches (there's no twist ending, and Shyamalan doesn't play a dramatic role), but by the end of the film, I was hoping for either a twist or a self-indulgent cameo, just to break the monotony of watching people in fields and parks and gardens kill themselves in increasingly ludicrous ways.
But what really makes The Happening suck is that it serves as unequivocal proof that a once-talented and unique filmmaker is either unwilling or unable to live up to his promise. I've been a fan of Shyamalan's since The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and Signs; even after most (justifiably) jumped ship with The Village and Lady in the Water, I stuck by him. Shit, I defended his movies at parties. Well, yeah, so that's over now, but at the time, it wasn't entirely wrong-headed: Shyamalan's earlier films had moments of ominous, quiet beauty, and he composed shots that were striking and eerie and unexpected. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and Signs are full of weird, astounding, and memorable moments, and there is not a single one of those in The Happening, a film that somehow feels lazy and rushed at the same time. The worst thing about The Happening isn't that it's not frightening, nor that it's filled with stupid people, nor that one can't even tell when it's supposed to be scary or funny. Shyamalan's made a really shitty movie, yes, but even worse, he's utterly squandered a chance to remind people that he used to be capable of making stuff that was great.