The biggest twist in M Night Shyamalan’s sixth (major) feature is that the twist is revealed 40 minutes in.
Until then, The Happening is shaping up nicely, which is to say eerily, mysteriously, menacingly. People in Central Park, NY are standing stock still, perhaps listening, perhaps being bodysnatched, before taking a step or two backwards and… well, killing themselves. Then it occurs in Philadelphia. And then all across the Northeastern seaboard, millions of glassy-eyed automatons walking off rooftops, picking up weapons and calmly lying themselves down in front of lawnmowers (those petrol-guzzling tractor-mowers, not Flymos from B&Q).
What’s happening ? It’s a good question, and one that’s asked by at least 10 characters, ensuring viewers will remember the title however hard they try to forget the movie. Is it a terrorist attack? Signs 2, perhaps? No, wait… Can it be linked to the missing bees that Mark Wahlberg’s unlikely science teacher was banging on about in class? Or is it the most ridiculous scenario imaginable, a concept so daft an eight-year-old child would dismiss it before settling on “And then he woke up and it was all a dream”?
Unfortunately it’s the latter, meaning belief is not so much suspended as rudely upended. And if that doesn’t do it – trust us, it will – there’s the risible dialogue (“Oh no” gasps a permanently bamboozled Wahlberg, Bill & Ted-stylee, when a companion blows their brains out), the wooden acting and the most inane set-piece you’ll see this, or any other, year: our heroes attempting to outrun the wind.
Shyamalan, then, has lost his way. The first misstep came in the last 10 minutes of the otherwise excellent Signs and the stumbles have become more and more pronounced. Yet he is a born filmmaker, capable of conjuring choking tension from a high-angled shot of a girl on a swing, a bank of rolling clouds. It’s these reminders – married to the opening 20 minutes – that save The Happening from being a total disaster. Just.