M. Night Shyamalan's sixth film mines a rich lode of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it clichés, but while the set up is spooky, the development is heavy handed and marred by Shyamalan's inability to write natural-sounding dialogue or convincing characters.
It's a beautiful morning and New York's Central Park is filled with runners, dog walkers, people taking the scenic route to work or luxuriating in the green oasis between the concrete canyons. And then something happens: People stop in their tracks, mutter incoherently and then kill themselves. As the carnage spreads to neighboring streets, accompanied by rumors of bio-terrorism, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his colleague, Julian (John Leguizamo), decide to gather their families and hop a train south. Julian's mother has a house outside Philadelphia. Elliot and Alma (Zoey Deschanel), mired in marital discord, arrive at Pennsylvania Station to find a full-fledged evacuation in progress. Julian is there with his eight-year-old, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez); her mom is delayed but insists that Julian get Jess to safety. It isn't long before passengers start to get and disseminate news indicating that the crisis isn't limited to New York, and the crew aborts the trip in middle-of-nowhere Filbert, PA: Their dispatchers have gone silent. The last news reports before the power goes off suggest that the catastrophe is confined to a chunk of the eastern seaboard, setting off an every-man-for-himself scramble. Julian leaves Jess with the Moores to look for his wife, while an eccentric local couple (Victoria Clark, Frank Collison) generously offers the ad hoc nuclear family a lift west. But the road to possible safety proves fraught with danger, human and otherwise.
The precise nature of Shyamalan's apocalypse is both silly and preachy, but that's not the film's fatal weakness: Its successful predecessors -- INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962), THE BIRDS (1963), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE CRAZIES (1973), 28 DAYS LATER (2002), THE MIST (2007) and many others -- aren't just, or even mostly about the crisis that breaches civilization's façade. They're about people accustomed to relying on institutions to manage danger – the police, the government, the phone company – abruptly cut loose to fend for themselves. That's where Shyamalan's unconvincing characters become an insurmountable liability – it's hard to care what happens about them. Even veteran actress Betty Buckley can't do anything with the overwrought crazy lady role Shyamalan hands her. The stilted dialogue repeatedly disrupts what should be an ever-escalating sense of dread and the plotting is just plain lazy. Why suggest that some people are immune or that the event – which no-one calls a "happening" -- makes animals lash out at humans, then never allude to either idea again? But how about the 11th-hour revelation? The welcome twist is that there is no twist – the story, however unsatisfying, is allowed to play itself out without gimmicks or stunts.
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