"The Happening" has the distinction of being far scarier for the ideas behind it than for anything in it.
Early in the movie - after women in New York's Central Park have suddenly begun stabbing themselves in the neck with hairpins and East Side construction workers have thrown themselves off girders - Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) asks his students for theories on why honeybee populations are plummeting around the world. On a blackboard he has written Albert Einstein's quote that if bees disappeared humans would follow within four years.
Despite the inconvenient fact that there's no record of Einstein ever actually saying such a thing, it's a frightening thought. The camera could hold on that blackboard for the movie's 90 minutes and many of us wouldn't be able to sleep for a week.
But no: M. Night Shyamalan has metaphors to torture. Actors and audiences, too. "The Happening" asks what would happen if Planet Earth decided to reject the species bedeviling its surface, and the best it can come up with is a slack, increasingly ludicrous B-movie about people running in terror from . . . wind.
I'll dance around the specifics of what's causing the mass trances followed by suicides - you can Google it easily enough and, besides, "The Happening" spills its own beans early in the game. Suffice to say that after a reasonably goose-bumpy opening 20 minutes, Elliot finds himself fleeing the city with his unsteady wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his math teacher best friend (John Leguizamo), and the latter's 7-year-old daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez).
We're in Apocalypse Right Now territory then, a genre whose surges of mass panic are familiar from "The Day After Tomorrow," "Cloverfield," "The Mist," and Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," among many others. These movies exist to reflect and package (and resolve) our nagging fears of extinction; they take the powerlessness we feel from reading the headlines and sell it back to us with popcorn. Nameless dread is easier to cope with when it's only two hours long.
"The Happening," though, sells it back to us with a lecture and not nearly enough visual aids. As the "event" takes hold across the Northeast, the characters join up with and split off from smaller and smaller groups, gradually piecing together the puzzle long after we've sussed it out. Shyamalan, as is his wont, prefers to tell rather than show: At one point, the characters pass through an uncompleted real estate development whose sign didactically informs us "You Deserve This."
Not this pompous moralizing, we don't. The mood of lowering environmental doom established in the early scenes dissipates, and "The Happening" doesn't bother to replace it with anything but flaccid atmosphere. We're teased with hints of marital discord between Elliot and Alma, and with the specialness of the little girl who becomes their surrogate child, but none of this goes anywhere. You wait in vain for the patented Shyamalan twist that will kick the story up to the next level, and it never comes: That's the twist. The film slowly strangles on its distaste for its own genre.
The actors, meanwhile, are left stranded. Wahlberg mines a little reflexive humor from his lines, but Deschanel has never seemed so comatose; and while the hulking teen actor Spencer Breslin provides some scruffy adolescent energy, he's not around long enough for it to stick. Late in the film, Betty Buckley turns up as a crazy hermit lady - it's as if Norman Bates's mom were finally getting her cameo - but the film has no idea what to do with her.
Ironically, there's just enough gore in "The Happening" to earn Shyamalan his first R rating (the studio publicity department, desperate to sell the thing, has made much of this fact). The movie is dainty by "Saw" standards, though: A man running himself over with a harvester and a cellphone video of another man offering himself up as dinner to hungry lions at the Philadelphia Zoo is as nasty as it gets.
That last scene has a cheap gonzo zing that suggests the director of "The Sixth Sense" and "Lady in the Water" might finally drop the Hollywood oracle shtick and settle into his genuine gifts as a B-movie visionary. I don't mean that as an insult; once upon a time filmmakers like Don Siegel ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers") and Val Lewton ("Cat People") were able to say profound things within the context of low-budget sci-fi and horror. They frightened us more by showing us less, and they never called it Art.
When he plays to his strengths, Shyamalan can still work our nerves in similar fashion. The early scene where a policeman's gun passes from one tranced-out victim to the next is a small marvel of economic horror, and it carries the larger message of "The Happening" - no one's killing us but ourselves - in its very DNA. The rest of the film is an increasingly gaseous restatement of that theme. You feel like you're not watching the end of the world but the end of a career.