The main problem, among many, is that The Happening is all premise and no plot. All we know is that some sort of horrible virus has hit the northeast section of the United States, and that (for some strange reason) we're invited to join a geeky science teacher and his estranged wife as they run from the mysterious terror. Sounds like a pretty solid set-up for a movie, doesn't it? Yes, a set-up, as in "Act I." Unfortunately M. Night feels that this provocative yet familiar tale of "sudden apocalypse" is all he needs to fill three full acts. The Happening doesn't even have a third act, really. In order to keep his antagonist a big mystery, Night starts out strong and then allows his movie to unravel like the world's cheapest sweater. It starts out more than compellingly enough, but somewhere around the thirty-minute mark, your inner movie critic will be screaming "OK, I get it. Mysterious virus that causes mass suicides. Interesting. Let's move on."
But The Happening never moves on from "mildly interesting" to anything resembling thrilling, memorable, shocking, or disturbing. I'm not saying I demand a "big twist" from Night every time out, but after struggling through a whole lot of monotonous wheel-spinning, one might expect an ending with a bit more ... originality. He's a filmmaker known for his well-crafted finales, but The Happening closes with a stinger that'll be familiar to anyone who grew up on the '50s monster movies or the '80s slasher flicks. I actually groaned to myself when a clumsily-inserted section of "talking head exposition" showed up in the final minutes. Not only does this scene ruin the (very mild) surprise, but it absolutely telegraphs the ending to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the horror genre. I expect the guy who gave me Unbreakable (in my opinion, a truly excellent film) to display a little more effort than that.
So while the director delivers some appreciably smooth sailing in his set-up, he seems to have run out of ideas by 55 minutes in, and then we're just counting down the moments to "the answer." Suffice to say that the big reveal is exceedingly disappointing. Also strangely ineffective are the lead performances by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Normally very charismatic on-screen, Wahlberg is here saddled with a weird little sing-songy voice and a childish earnestness that gets really old really fast. For her part, Deschanel never really seems connected to the action onscreen. Her line readings, particularly late in the film, scream of too many takes or some late-inning reshoots.
On the plus side, Night does utilize the R rating to deliver a few surface-level visual jolts, but they would work just as well as creepy little short films, as they do very little for the overall package. (Suffice to say that Night seems to feel a little uncomfortable with graphic violence, but points for effort.) James Newtown Howard contributes a very cool score that evokes the "red scare" thrillers of the '50s and '60s, but no amount of music, gore, or atmosphere can rescue the second half of this film. By the time our surviving characters are forced to outrun THE WIND, and especially once they come upon a wacky old lady, The Happening has demolished all the good will laid down by the chilling first act, and you'll be checking your watch whenever you're not chuckling quietly and wondering when the hell this weird little movie just fell off the rails.
As a director, Night still has some really great chops. (There's a very creepy sequence involving a policeman's gun that impressed me a lot.) But frankly, at this point Night the Producer should head out and find a nifty new screenplay for Night the director. Left to his own devices, the filmmaker might be content churning out stuff like this for the next 20 years. Working on somebody else's (quality) screenplay might do the guy a lot of good. Because he's going to take a beating for this flick.