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Case Number 14674

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The Happening

Fox // 2008 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 7th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Paul Pritchard's love of M. Night Shyamalan was once unbreakable, but now the signs don't look so good.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Happening (Blu-Ray), published October 15th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

"We're packing hot dogs for the road. You know hot dogs get a bad rap? They got a cool shape, they got protein. You like hot dogs, right? By the way, I think I know what's causing this."

Opening Statement

Would the real M. Night Shyamalan please stand up?

Facts of the Case

Something unseen, something without sound, has struck the East Coast of America, beginning in New York. Victims at first lose their train of thought, then become incoherent and, finally, kill themselves. As fear of a biological terrorist attack spreads through the populace, cities become no-go zones, with the panicked public escaping to the safety of the countryside.

But as the wave of death spreads, with small towns hit as quickly as the cities, the survivors must face a terrible realization as the perpetrator of the attack is revealed.

The Evidence

Perhaps even more so than J.J. Abrams (Lost), M. Night Shyamalan has the ability to divide audiences. Critics of Abrams will argue his TV and film work relies too much on the unseen, and the power of suggestion, while Shyamalan has been accused of being a "one-trick pony"—too reliant on the twist ending to cover the cracks in his scripts. Fans of either, however, will point out that, without question, both Abrams and Shyamalan are amongst the more visionary storytellers of our time, and have undeniably fertile imaginations. Where this similarity ends is in how each man treats their projects, and this is crucial. Take Cloverfield, for example: Abrams conceived of the idea for a different kind of monster movie, along with its stylistic approach, and passed it on to Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves to realize. Shyamalan's work takes a very different approach and has, if recent efforts are to be considered, started to show a lack of control. For once the spark of inspiration strikes, Shyamalan does all he can to keep others away from his baby. Taking it upon himself to write, direct, produce, act, and even do the catering for the movie; Shyamalan gives the impression of someone possessive of his work to the point of destruction.

It wasn't always a bad thing, though. The Sixth Sense, which brought Shyamalan to the world's attention, is an unbelievably effective film. Touching, chilling, and in possession of a rock-solid twist, the film has justifiably earned great praise. While Signs was a tension-filled, yet very personal account of an alien invasion, it is Shyamalan's comic book movie, Unbreakable, that stands as his best work. Containing all the staples of Shyamalan's oeuvre: a broken family, a touch of the supernatural, and the unseen killer "twist," Unbreakable is a masterpiece which contains the director's greatest ever sequence in the beautifully realized train station scene, when David Dunn (Bruce Willis) finally embraces his powers.

To compare The Village and The Lady in the Water to those three films is difficult. They almost feel like parodies of Shyamalan's previous movies and suffer greatly when placed next to them. The tight pacing, tension, and fear that resonated before are replaced by sloppy writing and a less assured directorial hand. The killing blow, for me personally, came when the twists started to become too obvious. To be able to guess Shyamalan's ruse in The Village only five minutes into the film, that's just unforgivable.

How much you enjoy, or despise, The Happening, Shyamalan's most recent effort, depends on how well you received those latter two works. Certainly this is no return to form for the writer/director. Rather, it sees a once great talent (and I don't say that lightly) fall to new lows and finds him further still from redeeming himself.

The concept, as is often the case with M. Night's work, is sound enough. I won't go into detail regarding the actual "happening," so as not to ruin the surprise for those poor souls who choose to brave this mess. With no prior warning people just start killing themselves. Commencing in Central Park, before spreading through Manhattan, this wave of mass suicides soon engulfs the north east of America, causing mass panic and hysteria. Before long trains full of scared citizens are evacuating the city, as word spreads of this being the work of terrorists. Through phone conversations and news transmissions we, along with the characters, learn that the "event" is spreading, and that more and more cities are being hit. Soon, and more worryingly for our protagonists, small towns are apparently targeted, leaving them with no real place to go.

Talking of having no place to go, The Happening really struggles to find any sense of direction. Revealing the truth so early on robs the film of its mystery, quickly leaving it with a lack of things to say. After countless scenes of our heroes running through fields and coming across scores of dead bodies, it eventually settles on a subplot involving a crazed old woman, veering too closely to the preacher in War of the Worlds. It feels both unnecessary and anti-climactic.

The Happening continues Shyamalan's current trend of producing lackluster stories that attempt to dazzle with their fantastical elements. The problem is Shyamalan has lost his ability to get under the viewers' skin. His stories no longer take hold of the imagination. In The Happening, the "event" happens, people work out what is causing it, it ends as soon as it began, and everyone goes back to normal. That's it. Finito.

Facing this apocalyptic event, and attempting to humanize proceedings, is science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg, The Departed). Moore, wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel, Bridge to Terabithia), and best friend Julian (John Leguizamo, Land of the Dead) find themselves in a fight to survive until the end credits. But these are characters suffering from a distinct lack of character. It's impossible to care about them because they have no depth. The screenplay gives them traces of personality and suggestions of them having some kind of real life, but never goes further than sketching out these ideas. Conversations contain details that hints at information we assume will be important later, yet never play out. Why, for instance, does it matter that Elliot and Alma are having marital difficulties? And what is the relevance to Julian's daughters whispering? The dialogue is full of small details that add to neither the characters nor the plot.

The Happening contains a number of actors I really like, yet here, without exception, the cast is terrible. From struggling to deliver the clunky dialogue, to looking unsure of what, exactly, it is they're supposed to be doing: this is beyond awful. Shyamalan's direction is totally lacking in merit. Scenes that are supposed to elicit fear are laughable; tension is notable by its absence, and, due as much to his writing as his directing, the film lacks cohesion, with secondary characters dropping in and out of the story with total abandon and little purpose.

Though I don't doubt the final retail copy of The Happening will have a fine transfer, the screener copy was found wanting. Close-ups revealed good detail levels, but all too often the picture looked like a poor quality download, with frequent blocking and dull images. The disc's audio was better, much better, with a nice 5.1 mix that fully embraced the rear speakers.

The disc comes with an average set of extras. Of some interest is "The Hard Cut," which gives a look at Fox's reasoning for making the film R-rated. At under 10 minutes, the piece is at least more entertaining than the main feature. Behind-the-scenes footage, along with a breakdown on the filming of a car crash sequence, are too lightweight to offer any real insight. Following the usual batch of deleted scenes is the "I Hear You Whispering" featurette. Detailing the character of Mrs. Jones, the crazy lady from the film's final act, this short piece acts as a perfect example of how poorly realized the characters in the final film are.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Somewhere, hidden beneath all the badness, is a message about man's total obliviousness as he heads down the path of destruction. At least I think there is, I wasn't really paying attention.

Also, as is entirely possible, if you're views on M. Night's work differ from my own, there's a chance you may actually enjoy The Happening.

Closing Statement

Having "endured" his last three films, it's easy to wonder whether that three-film run, from The Sixth Sense to Signs, was just pure luck, and that this "hack" is the real Shyamalan. I really hope that doesn't prove to be the case, and that the M. Night Shyamalan who enthralled me with Unbreakable returns. I miss him.

The Verdict


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Scales of Justice

Video: 70
Audio: 85
Extras: 50
Acting: 60
Story: 50
Judgment: 50

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Disaster
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• The Hard Cut
• "I Hear You Whispering"
• Visions of The Happening: A Making Of
• A Day for Night
• Elements of a Scene
• Gag Reel

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