Writer/producer/director M. Night Shayamalan has made a creepy, cautionary eco-thriller that neither cautions nor thrills. But it’s based on an interesting apocalyptic premise: what if nature turned on us? After all, honeybees are vanishing and no one knows why. Perhaps it’s an inexplicable natural phenomenon. But as Philadelphia science teacher, Elliot Moore (Mark Walberg), tells students in a quote attributable to Albert Einstein: if bees disappear, humans will follow within four years. (Except Einstein never said any such thing.)
Then early one morning as leaves rustle in the wind, everyone in New York’s Central Park becomes disoriented and suicidal; construction workers leap off nearby buildings. Panic quickly spreads throughout the Northeast. So Elliot grabs his mood ring (remember them from the ‘60s?) and flees the city by train with his seemingly comatose wife (Zooey Deschanel) and gabby math teacher friend (John Leguizamo) who totes his own repressed eight year-old daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). Scared and stranded in rural Pennsylvania, they’re on the run – but from what? An airborne neurotoxin, emanating from plants and trees? Is it some kind of ecologic retribution?
The astounding success of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” with its spooky “I see dead people” leveraged him a Hollywood career but his subsequent sci-fi sagas – “Signs,” “Unbreakable,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Water” – have gone rapidly downhill and this is another disappointment. No logic sustains the ominous foreboding of the minimal plot. There’s no palpable terror, no twist. The stilted dialogue is crammed with clichés, and since the edgy, underwritten characters behave bizarrely to begin with, they have nowhere to go emotionally.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Happening” is a fear-filled yet tepid 3. Instead of being full of dread, it’s dreadful.