Displaying the distinctiveness but not the profundity that he patently aims for, M. Night Shyamalan is back with another eerie thriller, “The Happening.” Evolving as a filmmaker, the “Sixth Sense” writer-director avoids gimmicks and plot twists in this doomsday drama starring Mark Wahlberg and the Pennsylvania wind.
But he also doesn’t include much of a story, or the substance or suspense that his material demands.
Shyamalan, who scored with “The Sixth Sense” and, more recently, has delivered rocky, preachy films “Signs” and “The Village,” continues on that track, but with the environment serving as his message ingredient this time.
The movie also contains aspects of doom fare like “The Birds,” “Children of Men” and Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” along with familiar Shyamalan elements: post-9/11 paranoia, family unity and farmhouse weirdness.
The creepiness starts in Central Park, where people, for reasons later attributed to a neurotoxin, freeze up and kill themselves by the handiest means available. The horror soon occurs elsewhere in New England, and believing that things are safer in farmville, Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), head there.
Math teacher Justin (John Leguizamo) and young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) join them.
The road trip features kooky supporting characters, marital friction, familial bonding and fierce winds as the protagonists try to evade the spreading plague. Elliot tries to determine its cause. A terrorist attack? A CIA-engineered virus? A natural phenomenon?
The answer has something to do with the latter and with eco-urgencies, and as conceived by Shyamalan, it makes for a nifty premise. Shyamalan also achieves some winningly creepy moments, particularly with his visual depiction of the suicides.
But neither depth nor buoyancy is Shyamalan’s specialty and, as the thin story unfolds, the film plays like an uninspiring doomsday doodle. We get little of the gripping foreboding feeling, the affecting humanity or the entertainment merit of the earlier-mentioned end-of-the-world titles.
The dialogue is laughable (“Oh, no!” “It’s happening here!”). The characters and their minidramas are tritely drawn. The treatment of eco-issues is about as substantial as the mood ring that Elliot, a man of science, takes seriously.
There is also too much weather going on. Photogenic clichés at best, the darkening clouds and heavy winds fail to fill us with dread.
The cast delivers neither credibility nor vitality. You feel the sorriest for Wahlberg, especially when his character pleads his case to a houseplant.
The Happening (One and half stars)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Running time 1 hour 31 minutes