Here’s the problem with Mark Wahlberg – he’s got exactly no ability to elevate the material he’s working with.
That’s not the worst problem in the world to have. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, it’s just that he hasn’t got the charisma to carry a film on his own the way, f’rinstance, George Clooney or Bruce Willis or Will Smith can. But neither is he a Keanu Reeves who’ll drag anything he’s involved with down to his level. He’s a safe pair of hands, a decent complimentary piece. Give Marky Mark a great script, a great director and a great supporting cast and you end up with Boogie Nights or Three Kings. Give him a mediocre script, a mediocre director and a mediocre supporting cast and you end up with The Italian Job. Give him one of the worst scripts in the history of motion pictures, a toweringly awful director and a helpless supporting cast and you end up with The Happening.
The Happening opens with hundreds of people in and around New York’s Central Park abruptly deciding to commit suicide. This leads to a moderately eerie scene of construction workers throwing themselves from the top of the building they’re working from and hitting the ground like sacks of tomatoes. From there on, it’s downhill all the way.
The rest of the film follows Mark Wahlberg (for it is he), a high school science teacher in Philadelphia as he flees from the “terrorist attacks” that are hitting the north-east coast of the US with his wife (Zooey Deschanel and her enormous Manga eyes – they could have cast her in that bonkers new BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU anti-drugs ad and saved themselves a fortune in CGI). It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Spielberg version of War Of The Worlds, with the majority of the movie spent showing its main characters running away from an implacable, unbeatable enemy before an anticlimactic deus ex machina ending. The reasons why War Of The Worlds works while The Happening very much doesn’t are many but the two most important are the presence of Tom Cruise, who despite being a batpoo insane religious cultist has screen presence out the fundament, and the drama that develops between the Cruise character and his two children being at least as interesting as the wider conflict with the aliens. You empathise with those three people. You care about what happens to them. It’s hard to give a toss about anyone in The Happening because they’re all so brain-bludgeoningly boring you find yourself rooting for their bloody and violent death just to temporarily alleviate the monotony.
M. Night Shymalan’s second movie, Unbreakable, was a film about comics written by someone who’s never read a comic in his life. Without wishing to give too much away in case you’re still inclined to see this terrible, terrible movie The Happening is a film about the arrogance of science and humanity’s impact on the Earth’s ecosystem written by someone who’s never spoken to a scientist in his life. Although given that the film hardly contains a single line of dialogue that sounds like something a real person might conceivably say, it seems to have been written by someone who’s never spoken to a human, either.
The first time we’re introduced to Marky Mark he’s telling a roomful of students about how millions of bees have suddenly vanished and inviting them to speculate as to what might have caused it. “A disease?” “But there are no bodies.” “Global warming?” “Could be. The temperature goes up a fraction of a degree, the bees can’t tolerate it any more and die.” EH? For a kickoff, wouldn’t that leave just as many bodies as a virus? And if bees were so sensitive that they couldn’t withstand a minute temperature fluctuation, wouldn’t they all die every time the sun went down? Plus, it’s stated this is happening all over the country, so presumably the bees in Arizona are being killed by an increase from 30 to 30.2 degrees centigrade at the same time that bees in Seattle are being killed by an increase from 18 to 18.2 degrees. Really? That’s your best guess? That’s your theory, is it?
Of course not! He’s got a much better answer than that. “They’ll come up with an explanation to put in a book but the truth is, it’s an act of nature. We’ll never know why it happened.” Yes. Because that’s what science is, isn’t it? It’s basically just a load of hand-waving to fob people off. Really, science can’t hope to understand Nature in any significant way. And yes, it does deserve a capital N. You could write this attitude off as just being the wrong-headed attitude of one chump of a character, except that at the end of the movie another “scientific expert” repeats the line almost verbatim. They don’t say that there are various different theories. They don’t say that there hasn’t yet been sufficient study into the phenomenon to hazard a guess as to its cause. They don’t even say that we might never fully understand what happened. No, it’s stated as a hard fact – act of nature, we’ll never know why, end of discussion. Mark Wahlberg’s character and the TV talking head are presented as the face of enlightened science, they survive and thrive because they accept man’s place in the scheme of things. If that’s your attitude, fine. If that’s the message you want your film to convey, fine. But you can’t put those words in the mouth of your characters who’re meant to be flippin’ scientists because it makes them and you sound like cavemen cowering in fear at the sight of the giant golden ball of fire floating in the sky.
Beyond the heavy-handed fable it’s hard to work out what sort of film The Happening is trying to be. It’s not an action movie, because there’s sod-all action. Somehow, Shyamalan’s managed to make a film called The Happening and forgotten to include anything, well, happening. It’s not a twist thriller or a whatdunnit because the source of “the terrorist attacks” is made obvious half an hour in, explicitly stated about fifteen minutes later then repeated about three more times after that. It’s not the story of two people resolving their differences against the background of A World Gone Mad because the two protagonists barely have any differences. There’s not a single moment in their relationship or indeed the film as a whole that rings true intellectually or emotionally. There’s no character development. There’s no character depth. There’s no character conflict. To be honest, there are barely any characters. Instead, there’re just a bunch of cardboard cutouts riding the world’s least interesting ghost train trying not to step in the metaphor.
If you feel it’s been too long since you’ve properly hated something, The Happening might be just what you’re looking for.