A funny thing happened on the way to the theater... I gave M. Night Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt.
Now, it wasn't as if he had a place in that suitcase of directors that I admire. I'm in the zone of pure indifference when it comes to Shyamalan. He is one of those film makers that simply "exists"... a Robert Aldrich, Ridley Scott, John Frankenheimer, Alan Parker, Steven Soderbergh. Reliable entertainers whose careers are intriguing enough to follow, yet are assuredly determined to never create anything great.
Frankly, I never understood the cultural excitement behind The Sixth Sense. It was magical to viewers under the age of seventeen or adults who had seen less than a total of three hundred movies. Shyamalan's punchline ending was mistaken as a qualifier for a quality film. (Movie goers just don't take films as seriously as they should.) This was proven when audiences - and critics - rejected the artistically superior The Village and Lady In The Water. It was as if they were seeking absolvement for the false praise lapped upon previous films. Their penance was to renounce from here on out.
Which was unfortunate, because Lady In The Water was Shyamalan at his peak. Unchained & uninhibited, he turned away from crowd and studio expectations (demands?) and was resigned to appear silly in the eyes of others for the sake of his vision. A personal - and yes, selfish - vision (the film was made for his daughters), but it was Shyamalan at his most singular and honest, like the Paul Thomas Anderson of Punch Drunk Love. But like Anderson, that stint with inspiration ended quickly. Both directors couldn't resist reclaiming the adoration they once received from critics and viewers. There Will Be Blood sold out ingenuity in order to put Anderson back on that comfortable critic approval list... while it's too soon to see whether The Happening will return Shyamalan to the status of audience darling.
What happens in The Happening is an environmental counter-attack on humans. We've been pissing in her rivers, riding tree swings, clearing land, and leaving carbon footprints up and down her back... and dammit, she's not gonna take it anymore! Momma nature has instructed her army of foliage to unleash toxins that first debilitates, then forces people them to commit suicide.
What's most appalling about The Happening is Shyamalan's new found uncharacteristic violent streak. The self-inflicted/murderous deaths are delivered in a ghoulish manner that brings nothing but nastiness to the plot. One particularly tasteless moment comes when Shyamalan cuts from the murder of two children to an image of two biddies crocheting and rocking in their chairs with gas masks on. What's pitiful is that Shyamalan intends this as comic relief, but with shock still in our minds, it's nothing more than cheap gallows humor. The film's only cinematic moment comes when a gun is used as a device in a string of suicides filmed in one short tracking shot. Is Mother Nature really that cruel? Why doesn't she just unleash a flood or roll out a fleet or tornadoes. Forced suicide is so... deliberate! What a bitch!
Shyamalan is clearly lost. He's either gripping hard to deliver another movie that will stir up lobby discussions, or, continuing his I-don't-care-what-anyone-thinks streak. Either way, he's hit bottom, and by allowing himself to be seduced by pop-politic ideology he's alienated himself from the imagination and instincts that once made his movies at least entertaining.
People used to buzz about Shyamalan as being "the next Spielberg". That was precocious as hell, not to mention insulting to Spielberg (it's like the inanity - and insanity! - behind calling Paul Thomas Anderson "the next Robert Altman"...), but if a more accurate analogy is needed to place his current state, M. Night Shyamalan is looking like the next George Lucas.