It draws far too much attention to itself with dialogue and visuals coming right out of a comic book panel.
It is really not so unusual for directors to knock moviegoers off their feet with their first films and then struggle on for years never quite equalling the artistry of their initial effort. Orson Welles continued to make intriguing cinema for decades but never equalled Citizen Kane. The Coen brothers burst onto the scene with Blood Simple but it took years to make another a dent with Fargo before seemingly maturing with No Country for Old Men.
M Night Shyamalan is the most recent case of the wunderkind losing his way. After The Sixth Sense, which was actually his third film but the first to attract any attention, Shyamalan could have got funding for filming his big toe. The Sixth Sense is one of those films that will never grow old. Its characters are charismatic and intriguing, its atmosphere of dread is seamlessly constructed and punctuated by truly frightening images that come out of nowhere but fit right in. And in the end, you've been fooled. Happily fooled. So happily in fact that everyone was just waiting for his next movie so they could be fooled again.
A huge artistic and financial success at the start of a career, however, is not always a good thing. Shyamalan has never come close to duplicating the artistry of The Sixth Sense. His second film, Unbreakable, was clever enough and ended with its own disturbing twist. Signs was a bit on the slow side but still contained a couple of good scares. But the more the director got away from the turpitude of the individual, and the more socially orientated the main characters became, the less credible, the less frightening and the less interesting Shyamalan's films became. If the director stays within the psyche of the individual or, in the case of Signs, within that of the family, he capably evokes a sense of dread which is raised to fright through the well-timed interjection of disturbing or shocking images. When he breaks out of that hermetic world, however, his talents falter.
The Village and Lady in the Water bear this out and it reaches its nadir in his most recent work, The Happening. The Happening starts out eerily enough with people in Central Park suddenly committing suicide and construction workers walking off buildings in droves and plummeting to their deaths. Much of the East Coast of the US is affected by what is suspected to be some kind of terrorist attack using chemicals that pervert the sense of self-preservation.
In Philadelphia, some 200 miles to the south, schools are evacuated and we end up following the high school science teacher Elliot (Mark Walhberg) as he and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), board a train leaving the city along with his friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). Eventually Julian leaves Jess with the husband and wife, who are struggling with marital problems, as he sets out for Princeton in search of his wife who has stopped answering her phone.
All of these actors, with the exception of Sanchez, have some credible performances behind them. Wahlberg, in particular, was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in The Departed and Deschanel and Leguizamo have proven their talent in various outings. Under Shyamalan's direction, however, they all come across as ludicrous, surpassing even the artificiality of actors in the worst adaptations of Stephen King novels. Wahlberg, in particular, is grating as the relentless goody-good guy whose adolescence never abated. Deschanel only strikes a chord of believability in the film's penultimate scene and Leguizamo is mercifully eliminated - or eliminates himself, rather - near the end of the first act.
Much has been made of Shyamalan's love of comic books, a medium that has influenced some of the greatest artists of the past 50 years. Here, however, the influence draws far too much attention to itself with dialogue and visuals coming right out of a comic book panel. It results in some laughable lines, and an insistence on close-ups of faces staring directly into the camera that are appropriately disconcerting at first but become pointless and confusing with overuse.
A look at the DVD extras gives some insight into Shyamalan's problems. A clear smugness is present in the on-set footage and you know you have a problem when the most interesting featurette is a detailed - and fascinating - documentation of a special effect. There's not even anything funny in the gag reel. Shyamalan introduces each featurette, addressing the camera as "you guys" as in: "I wanted to show this to you guys" as if we're all in on this together.
After The Sixth Sense we were. Five films later, unfortunately, we're not.