It’s difficult to believe, but I think I like the old arrogant M. Night Shyamalan better than the new servile one. His last picture, Lady In The Water, was a disaster, but it possessed a courage of conviction and willingness to stridently proclaim artistic superiority, silliness be damned. This one, by way of contrast, exudes a pathetic desire to please. Shyamalan’s characteristic twist and cameo are gone*, replaced by overt violence and directorial apathy. As resounding failures go, The Happening hits with a strangely light thump.

Don’t be led (or enticed) to believe that this is a spectacularly violent movie. But the violence stands out because it is pure nonsense. When people in New York City begin killing themselves for no apparent reason, suspicions emerge of a new terrorist attack. A startlingly miscast Mark Wahlberg is a science teacher who flees to the country with withdrawn wife (Zooey Deschanel) and a fellow teacher (John Leguizamo) with his own daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) in tow.  

No one really knows what is happening; people are going stoic, then walking off buildings or hanging themselves, or putting a gun to their forehead. One calm chap lies down in front of a lawn mower. Eventually, the terrorist theory fades and prevailing opinion surfaces that plants are either warning humanity or beginning to attack us for crimes against the planet. Supposedly the greenery is exuding a toxin that disables our self-preservation circuitry. Why that leads to instant suicide is unclear, but it does suggest that Shyamalan is more of a fatalist than we’d ever suspected.

As horror contrivances go, this isn’t the worst one I’ve heard this week. It does, however, offer very little to work with. With no evil tendrils or insistent roots to unleash, we watch with marked lack of concern as…nothing…is deployed against humanity.

Early on, Wahlberg discusses disappearing honeybees, but the horror of that true story barely plays into the plot. The bee discourse proves to be primarily a mechanism for establishing the notion that some things occur with no evident explanation. Call it the scientific shrug. Or call it a good basis for a movie.

Apologists have long since conceded that Shyamalan isn’t much of a writer even as they insist upon his directorial skills. The only way anyone will be able to uphold his directorial after The Happening is to not see it; the movie plays like the product of a man who never saw the script. Great swaths are incoherent and flaccid. John Leguizamos daughter is forgotten through various sequences, only to regain her presence when convenient. Tension is non-existent. The very notion of narrative seems to be under attack.

One of the few scenes staged with any conviction is the much maligned moment in which Wahlberg attempts to pacify a houseplant. The scene is silly and funny, intentionally so I think, and is one of the few that engages the story on the level of a b-movie. (As recent statements from Shyamalan insist he intended all along; believe that if you will.)

The grand, overarching idiocy of the script almost overwhelms the smaller moments of inexplicable foolishness. What would possess Shyamalan to write the crazy old loner who accuses Wahlberg of coveting her lemon drink? Or the horticulturalist with a keen fondness for hot dogs? At least the pair of city kids who go a little crazy trying to get into a home that might offer some shelter doesn’t come out of a sociological void.

Consider also the bit where a horrific example of The Happening is sent to a woman’s iPhone. She shares the information by holding the phone up so that the device’s screen becomes the cinema screen. Instead of being drawn in by the events in the clip (an amateur staging of an animal attack) I could only think, ‘David Lynch is going to hate this!’

That didn’t come out of nowhere; Lynch was already on my mind. In Twin Peaks, he (and his creative team) generated immense atmosphere be separating scenes with shots of trees swaying in the wind. Warped by their hands, a nighttime shot of rustling evergreens was powerful and unsettling. Shyamalan liberally applies his own clips of windblown trees and grass, but gets only laughter. Maybe a sneeze. Then again, it’s hard to scare anyone when you’ve got Mark Wahlberg attempting to outrun the wind.

The construction is too much for every actor. Walhberg musters little more than an ounce of credibility; he’d be more believable if he rapped his dialogue. Leguizamo is slightly more energetic, while Zooey Deschanel looks glazed and nearly comatose. That was a familiar performance, at least; I saw the same faces every time I glanced around the theater.

Ironically, the very existence of this film is proof that Shyamalan is onto something. I can think of nothing less than airborne plant toxins that would drive him to commit a more effective artistic suicide.

1 out of 10

*Shyamalan is credited to one character, but in this cut his presence is only inferred.