(Revision Thursday 12:30 a.m.)
I love that M. Night Shyalaman, who likes to think of himself as a genius and the cinematic heir to Steven Spielberg, is in reality now making the world's most expensive student films. All the hallmarks are in The Happening: the overuse of close-ups, the bizarre gaps where characters should have dialogue but don't and have to fill in the dead air with odd facial expressions, the miscast actors who flail around not quite sure of what they should be doing, the jokes that fall flat and the scares that are hilarious. It's quite a bad movie, and only composer James Newton Howard makes it out with his dignity.
The thing about M. Night Shyamalan is that he isn't just content to be a storyteller. With the exception of the movie that put him on the map, The Sixth Sense, all of his films want to be mass-entertainment-with-a-message, and he does have consistent themes and ideas in his films. I would like to think that making personal, visually interesting films with thoughtful ideas that can also appeal to a mass audience is pretty much the height of success in film - I give Shyamalan a lot of credit for sticking to his personal vision when he could just make a slick, impersonal thriller every few years and rake in the dough.
The problem is, Shyamalan's ideas are pretentious and his themes are shallow, and he takes them wayyyy too seriously. Unbreakable, which I mostly like, is totally crackpot. Signs was released at just the perfect time to exploit the nation's post-9/11 paranoia and helplessness, pandering to those feelings while pushing an infuriating 'everything happens for a reason' message of blind faith. The Village suggests that modern civilization itself is corrupt and should be abandoned in favor of medievalism; and Lady in the Water promoted infantile egotism in the guise of whimsy.
In a lot of ways, The Happening wants to be as obnoxious as those others (SPOILERS): plants, infuriated by modern life and pollution, conspire to release toxins that drive humans to stop in their tracks and stab themselves, shoot themselves, jump off buildings, and take naps under riding mowers. It's an interesting concept that could have been a fun updating of Day of the Triffids, weighed down by Shyamalan's earnestness and humorlessness. It's a ridiculous premise, and a better director would have acknowledged the ridiculousness instead of making the whole movie a solemn cautionary tale, and the whole thing ends up riding off the rails.
But for all that, I can't find myself hating The Happening nearly as much as Signs or The Village or Lady in the Water. It's too stupid to be hated, and many scenes cross over into so-bad-it's-good territory. My personal favorite (SPOILERS again) is a short bit in a cafe where a woman is watching an online video on her iPhone of a man killing himself by walking into a lions' cage in a zoo and calmly sticking out his hands for the lions to tear off and eat. Ignoring the blatant product placement, the idea that somebody somewhere had the time to go home and upload this video, and the terrible special effects, we're still left with the bizarre idea that nervous lions would just start chewing away instead of pouncing or going for the throat. I mean, has M. Night ever seen a nature program? And this is a before we meet the hot-dog loving plant expert or get to the farmhouse owned by the crazy lady. I could go on, but you get the point: sometimes, there's no point in being angry at a movie, you just go for the ride. I just wish Shyamalan wasn't working so hard to give crazy auteurs a bad name.
(Revision) I want to add that there are scenes and moments in this movie that are totally effective and creepy. The whole opening sequence, starting in Central Park with unseen horrors just out of sight and the cavalcade of jumping construction workers, is terrific, unnerving and bizarre. Later scenes such as what happens to the cop's gun after he shoots himself are brilliantly conceived and executed as well. The problem is that Shyamalan doesn't connect these moments into a more discordant, disturbing larger framework, and the movie as a whole is only sporadically unnerving, and never truly 'scary' to me.