I think it’s a rotten shame what’s happened to M. Night Shyamalan, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see it coming.
I fell in love with Shyamalan’s work on the page before I ever saw a frame of film he’d shot. In particular, I read three scripts of his that were given to me by the same person, a friend named Den. He gave me “Labor of Love,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Stuart Little.” By the time I finished reading all three, I was a fan. There was an economy to the way Shyamalan expressed himself on the page that suggested to me a writer who absolutely knew what he was saying and why. He didn’t waste a word.
These days, though, he seems to have no idea what he’s saying or why, and he’s never seemed to be more out of touch with his gifts as a storyteller. It’s like the harder he pushed himself as a director, the less interested he got in what he was actually saying, and with “The Happening,” he has officially crossed from being a frustrating director not living up to his potential to being a total mess.
This is a stupid movie. It’s a stupid movie in a way that demonstrates an open contempt for the audience. The premise has, I suppose, a little bit of promise… there’s something to the idea that one of these days, this planet of ours is going to wake up and shake us off like fleas. There’s a positively brutal horror book about the same idea called “The Bridge” that was published in the early ’90s, and if anyone ever makes that as a movie, expect them to pull off what Shyamalan couldn’t here.
Part of it is that he never externalizes the horror in a way that is involving in a film. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, all the plants in the world decide that human beings are a threat, so they begin to manufacture and release chemicals that are airborne that cause madness and death.” That’s fine as an idea. But showing it? That’s the trick, and that’s where Shyamalan absolutely shits the bed here. You cannot show sequences of people running from a light breeze and then expect it to work as horror. It’s just not menacing. Doesn’t matter what’s in that light breeze… film is about images as much as ideas, and as an image, a bunch of people running around a field while the wind blows is pretty much as lame as lame gets.
He’s also evidently getting much worse with actors. Part of your job as a director is to help actors make their choices about performance, and part of it is also to make your own choices based on what they do on set. And right now, if you had to judge based only on the evidence of this film, he has no idea what a good performance looks like. Whatever Zooey Deschanel was trying to accomplish in this film (unless it was “recent victim of head trauma”), she failed. And Mark Wahlberg hasn’t hurt his own credibility as an actor this much since the underwear commercials. It’s sort of startling how bad everyone is.
Finally, if you’re going to make a big deal out of making your first R-rated movie, and you’re going to sell a horror film on how shocking it is, it might help if your movie was either (A) shocking or (B) remotely scary. But thanks to the bizarre choices characters make, the absolute lack of tension or dramatic thrust, and the way Shyamalan’s reserve keeps him too removed from all the film’s scares, this is inert.
It’s a good thing he already has another job lined up, and it’s even better for him that it’s such a great piece of source material. But if “The Last Airbender” doesn’t work out for him, then you might want to mark this as the movie that killed Shyamalan’s career, and that’s the scariest thing about it.