You know that co-worker that comes in after a long, uneventful weekend and insists upon telling you every dull detail of his equally uninteresting escapades? You know he thinks he's captivating, with a great story to tell, but you'd rather shove something sharp into your ears than listen to another minute of his banal ramblings? That's a lot like The Happening, one of the worst attempts at end-of-the-world ominousness since the Robot Holocaust battled the Ninja Apocalypse (and yes -- those are both actual movies).
One beautiful fall morning, all activity in New York's Central Park suddenly stops. Soon, people are cutting their own throats and stabbing themselves to death. Downtown, workers at an office building throw themselves off in a lemming-like mass suicide. In Philadelphia, science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), their best friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) all decide to head to the countryside to avoid the city -- and the source of the so-called attack. Soon, rumors begin flying of terrorist involvement, while others think the local nuclear power plant may be responsible. All anyone really knows is that the psychological virus is spreading and no one appears immune... or safe.
It's official: M. Night Shyamalan is no longer the next Spielberg. At this rate he won't even be the next Ray Dennis Steckler. After the stellar Sixth Sense and the equally excellent Unbreakable, he's managed a downward spiral that few on his Tinseltown trek could survive. Sure, Signs made money, and The Village has its defenders, but after the calamitous Lady in the Water, it was commercial do or die for the 38-year-old. So he responded to said challenge by delivering a cockamamie concept involving the end of the world (or at least the Eastern seaboard of the United States part of it) and how a diminishing group of ethnically mixed individuals deal with all the death and destruction.
Frankly, they don't take it very well -- and neither will the audience. Instead of scares (which are all telegraphed in the various trailers bubbling around the web) we get unintentional laughs. Instead of thought provoking sci-fi speculation, we get the Alan Titchmarsh version of Armageddon. On the plus side, there's no "twist" here, Shyamalan is thankfully abandoning the trademark that frequently flummoxed his narrative structure. Here, conjecture runs rampant, but within the first 30 minutes, Wahlberg and company settle on a single theory. Not to spoil it here, but let's just say it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. It's the least compelling element in a film already hampered by unexceptional casting and dialogue driven by exclamations, not explanations.
Besides, Shyamalan scrimps on the good stuff. We never really experience the breakdown of society; the random events that do occur -- occasional power outages, incomplete radio transmission, speculative new reports -- fail to cause anything other than ennui. The onscreen deaths don't go far enough, holding back on both the horror and gore. Our survivors are mere pawns, required to do no more than stop, yammer, then simply push on, trying to vainly outrun a threat they barely comprehend. The cast tries heroically to infuse meaning into vague, unfocused lines, and there is a last act appearance by a psychotic recluse (played by Betty Buckley) that changes the entire tone into something akin to a backwoods exploitation effort.
In fact, The Happening is very much like the basic made-on-the-cheap B-movie schlock that took up residence at your '50s/'60s passion pit. Of course, keeping company with Ray Kellogg and Bert I. Gordon won't guarantee you placement in cinema's Hall of Fame. Hall of Shame is more like it -- which is exactly where this boring movie and its maker belong.
We'll just wait here 'til the movie's over.