As a scientist, Elliot knows the importance of careful observation and drawing conclusions from evidence that he overexplains, irritatingly, to his estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) on a westward-bound train that makes an unscheduled stop.
Shyamalan, who produced, wrote and directed, furnishes Elliot and company with dialogue so stilted it sways on wooden legs. "We're in a small town," Elliot says, in one of the film's many howlers, "nothing will happen to us here."
As with most films from Shyama-land, The Happening reverberates with the tensions of urban vs. rural, community vs. isolation. Most of the film takes place outside, where its characters are vulnerable to the unseen, but palpable, threat.
In this variation on the theme of don't mess with Mother Nature, is Shyamalan criticizing those who overburden the environment by building dense megalopolises, or those who despoil it by sprawl? There are suggestions that this trim, 91-minute film once had an anti-development subplot of which only vestiges remain. The film plays both sides of the skirmish between individual vs. community. At the same time it paints reclusive Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley in a Gothic performance) as parochial and out of touch, it also suggests that there is no safety in numbers.
Like the recent War of the Worlds and I am Legend, The Happening resonates with the disaster-and-disorientation frenzy of 9/11. Oddly for Shyamalan, whose long takes and careful compositions encourage identification with his characters, it ultimately fails to involve us with its hero's plight.
For those Shyamalan haters predicting that his career is over, repeat after me: Movies are short; careers are long. From my multiplex seat, Shyamalan is shooting three for six. In the NBA, a .500 field goal percentage is pretty good. In Hollywood it is, too.
The Happening ** (out of four stars)
Produced, directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. With Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Betty Buckley. Distributed by 20th-Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins.
Parent's guide: R (discreet, if deeply disturbing, images of violence and suicide)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.