If Lady in the Water was M. Night Shyamalan's weird, private "bedtime story," The Happening could be the dream that followed it. And a nightmare it certainly is. The forehead-slapping begins promptly, with needles pulled out of coiffures and jammed into jugulars and construction workers raining from skyscrapers to show that the filmmaker will be taking his R-rating seriously. Or will he? The movie is terrible in so many odd ways that it frequently suggests an Andy Kaufman-Tony Clifton parlor trick. (Really, what else can ominous cues played over shots of waving tall grass suggest?) Anyhoo, there's an outbreak of suicides in the Northeast: People cry "terrorists," as they are prone to in the new millennium's disaster-fright flicks, but to the protag, a dopey science teacher dopily played by Mark Wahlberg, it is the result of "forces at work beyond our understanding." No wonder his wife (Zoey Deschanel) is thinking of ditching him for some dude she ate timarisu with. Domestic troubles are put on hold, however, as the two are saddled with their friend's lil' daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) and tossed into the countryside while civilization crumbles around them. Turns out (spoiler, yawn) our bad vibes are to blame -- plants pick up on them and release toxins that make people offer their limbs to hungry beasts and calmly lay down as a thrasher comes plowing their way. All of this, it should be made clear, is shot in the inimitable Shyamalan lugubriousness, The Day of the Triffids filmed as if it were Kieslowski.
In the Nature-Strikes-Back meter founded by The Birds, The Happening rates roughly beneath The Night of the Lepus' ballsack. Was it really nine years ago that summer audiences were flocking to The Sixth Sense (and, ugh, The Blair Witch Project) while Eyes Wide Shut was being ridiculed by critics? Shyamalan has since gone from having his stock inflated, then dumped, by all but his staunchest defenders; I get no pleasure from kicking an artist when he's down, but his latest feels like Stephen King read out loud by the slowest players on the golf team. Apropos of King, I hoped that the introduction of a Cell-like apocalypse into the filmmaker's world might goose his primness, the way The Mist dried up Darabont's gooeyness last year. No such luck -- he can shotgun kids in the head and have Betty Buckley stomp around like Granny Vorhees all he wants, there's no room in Shyamalan's leaden pedantry for the honest, probing misanthropy of George A. Romero, say. "Can you believe how crappy people are?" How can a film evoke genuine dread when the characters are forever on the verge of joining hands and singing "Kumbaya"? The consensus now seems to be that Shyamalan is "visually gifted" (count me out, though -- to these eyes his filmmaking has always been unbearably anvil-heavy, like an elephant with gas) but needs to curb his self-regard. I'd be happy if he just respected viewers a little more. The Happening may conclude with the rumble of global horror, but its "visionary" is still the patronizing guy in the car announcing to the screen, "I'm gonna tell ya a riddle, okay?"
For misanthropy done right, however, check out Stuart Gordon's Stuck. "We crash into each other just so we can feel something," goes Paul Haggis. "Fuck that," Gordon retorts. A crash here is no mealy-mouthed metaphor but a sardonic, visceral ordeal, and a compact, lurid tabloid item that blows the lid off mundane human insensitivity as only the creator of Re-Animator could. The tale, "inspired by a true story," opens in the literal shit of the old-folks home where Mena Suvari, done up in cornrows, toils uncomplainingly, buoyed by news of a potential promotion. Elsewhere in the city, Stephen Rea suffers mishap after degrading mishap until, by the end of the day, he has joined the ranks of the homeless. The collision takes place between the ecstasy-tripping nurse's auto and Rea's shopping cart; he's stuck "like a goddamn bug" in her windshield, she drives the bloody mess home and locks up the garage. Desperate, Suvari calls her beau (Russell Hornsby), whose gangsta-playa fašade promptly crumbles as well; the two jump into bed while Rea, impaled on glass shards and wiper blades, refuses to die quietly. Gordon's monsters, Lovecraftian furies in the '80s, have become more human in his recent pictures -- or maybe it's the humans who have become more monstrous since. Stuck is related to King of the Ants and Edmond in a trilogy of red-eyed studies of people morphing into beasts reflecting the anxieties of their environments, and Gordon colors it with blistering grue and an unrelenting sense of waste. It's tempting to call it anti-humanism, but no film in which societal decay is addressed via a mangled avenger fighting his trash-bag doom can be just written off as a sick joke.
Man, Rio de Janeiro just can't get a break these days. When it isn't being peddled as some Kasbah of moronic thugs (Meirelles' City of God, City of Men), it is used as sanctuary for a turgid, CGI-Frankenstein reject. In The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner (nerdy Edward Norton) is zapped with gamma radiation and lets the green beast out before the credits are over, possibly director Louis Leterrier's attempt to assure audiences that, unlike Ang Lee's brooding 2003 version of the Marvel Comics saga, this bitch is gonna run! Bruce finds a favela hideout to nurse the biochemical toxins in his bloodstream, but soon enough turns into the titular Id-behemoth for the mandatory (and unimaginative) smash-a-tons. "I don't want to control it. I want to get rid of it," says our hero. Supporting characters aren't much more fun: William Hurt sports a fine mustache as the Army rotter seeking the "super soldier" (the military angle was strangely missing in Lee's picture, probably due to its proximity to the Iraq invasion), Liv Tyler is a pretty blank, Tim Roth gets covered in latex that makes him look like the blob from Basket Case after a year's supply of steroids. "Promethean fire," according to nutty professor Tim Blake Nelson, but in the hands of hacks it becomes nothing more than an overcast anger-management meeting.
Reviewed June 29, 2008.