Sometimes Roger Ebert is the only critic that gets a movie. That's the case with M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, which resembles The Birds and Tarkovsky's Stalker in its mysterious apocalytic mood but has a small human story at the center and much wry humor. (George Romero's The Crazies also comes to mind.) It boasts a 24% (Rotten) on the Rottentomatoes "Tomatometer," a poll of print and online reviewer opinions. A score that low often means something's good because it's flummoxed reviewers who don't care about things like the mathematics of shots and hate to recommend a movie that upsets them.
You probably know from the endlessly repeated trailer that it's about an epidemic of creepy suicides. I won't reveal too much but one of the theories floated is it is plant life fighting back against our despoiling the planet by releasing toxins that unhinge the human "survival imperative." Here's Ebert:
Too uneventful for you? Not enough action? For me, Shyamalan's approach is more effective than smash-and-grab plot-mongering. His use of the landscape is disturbingly effective. The performances by Wahlberg and Deschanel bring a quiet dignity to their characters. The strangeness of starting a day in New York and ending it by hiking across a country field is underlined. Most of the other people we meet, not all, are muted and introspective. Had they been half-expecting some such "event" as this?
I know I have. For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act. We have finally insulted the planet so much that it can no longer sustain us. It is exhausted. It never occurred to me that vegetation might exterminate us. In fact, the form of the planet's revenge remains undefined in my thoughts, although I have read of rising sea levels and the ends of species.
What I admire about "The Happening" is that its pace and substance allowed me to examine such thoughts, and to ask how I might respond to a wake-up call from nature. Shyamalan allows his characters space and time as they look within themselves. Those they meet on the way are such as they might indeed plausibly meet. Even the TV and radio news is done correctly, as convenient cliches about terrorism give way to bewilderment and apprehension.
I suspect I'll be in the minority in praising this film. It will be described as empty, uneventful, meandering. But for some, it will weave a spell. It is a parable, yes, but it is also simply the story of these people and how their lives and existence have suddenly become problematic. We depend on such a superstructure to maintain us that one or two alterations could leave us stranded and wandering through a field, if we are that lucky.
The movie doesn't meander at all, it's tightly plotted and moves swiftly. The shocks continue right up to the end. I thought of Stalker because the suddenness of death, coming on a rippling gust of wind, recalls the dream logic of The Zone (a blighted spot left by an alien beam hitting the Earth from far away in space). Here the cause is even more unclear.
Shot mathematics: Cop greets cab driver. Cop suddenly puts gun to his own head, shoots. Cop's head hits ground with hole in forehead. Camera sweeps to gun, ground level view. Cabbie gets out of cab, legs visible only, walks to gun, picks it up, shoots (out of frame), falls to ground, also with bullet hole in head. Camera, still at ground level, follows gun as it comes to rest. As oozing blood from the cab driver (now out of frame) pours towards gun, a passing woman walks into frame from the center background, at an angle perpendicular to the camera's movement, legs and shoes visible only. She reaches the gun at the same time as the blood, picks up the weapon, fires... This is way intense, and formally flawless. (Very De Palma.)