The Happening

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez and Betty Buckley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. 91 min. Rated R.

The good news is: M. Night Shyamalan is back on the upswing with his new The Happening. The bad news is: After Lady in the Water, what wouldn’t represent an upswing? That is to say, The Happening is nowhere near the level of his breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, and not quite as good as the subsequent Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, but at least it suggests the awfulness of Lady in the Water may have been an aberration.

The opening credits are superimposed on a sky filled with beautiful time-lapse clouds that, along with the music, darken ominously, foreshadowing events to come. In Central Park, a young woman goes all glassy-eyed — before killing herself. Within minutes, Manhattan is in the grip of a veritable epidemic of suicides. No one knows what the hell is going on.

As word spreads to other cities, Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) gathers up wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and leaves the city — just to play it safe — with pal Julian (John Leguizamo) and the latter’s 8-year-old daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). But, even out in the countryside, the mysterious suicide plague seems to be taking hold, and the four find themselves on the run. Soon Julian becomes separated from the others, leaving Jess and the childless Moores as a sort of cobbled-together family.

It has always been difficult to write about Shyamalan’s films without spoiling the big “twist,” but The Happening is different. The story is only partly driven by the characters (and the audience) wanting to know why this is happening. Is it terrorists? A government experiment gone awry? An effect of global warming?

The characters do a lot of speculating, and the correct answer (though it’s not confirmed for a while) is suggested pretty early on during some strikingly on-the-nose exposition — which means the only remaining revelation involves the precise dynamics of the affliction and how to avoid it. In other words, this represents a change of pace for Shyamalan; with no shocking twist, The Happening is really a pretty straightforward horror film.

In fact, it follows the template of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds very closely. There is the sudden appearance of an unstoppable menace of apocalyptic proportions, possibly a sort of supernatural expression of the natural. Driven by confusion and despair, the escapees come together as a surrogate family, with Wahlberg, Deschanel and Sanchez standing in for Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Veronica Cartwright. (Betty Buckley shows up in a different version of Jessica Tandy’s “old lady” character.) Even the ending has similarities, although Shyamalan nails down things Hitchcock left up in the air.

The big difference is — no birds. That is not just a wisecrack: Shyamalan has made the approach of the menace almost invisible, which has the potential to be even scarier than a marauding murder of crows.

It really isn’t as frightening as its model, or Steven Spielberg’s much maligned War of the Worlds, which follows a similar trajectory, but it does maintain a generally high tension level.

Throughout most of his decline, Shyamalan has remained a terrifically talented director. The Village may be ridiculous, but it has some beautifully put together sequences. (Sadly, Lady in the Water lacks even that.)

The phrase “one-trick pony” gets invoked in this context sometimes, but it’s not really fair. Sure, The Sixth Sense remains his greatest accomplishment, but that’s the consequence of starting out with a brilliant piece of work. It’s Shyamalan the writer who has been failing Shyamalan the director; Sixth Sense was a terrific realization of an equally terrific hook. Since then, it’s the scripts — primarily the premises — that have gone downhill, not Shyamalan’s staging.

Even here, there are some script problems. The “rules” of the menace don’t seem wholly consistent. An early scene of construction workers dropping en masse from a building provided a great shot for the trailer and ads, but it doesn’t really conform to what we’re later led to believe. We get no explanation for — or even acknowledgment of — several cases where one person in the middle of an infected crowd seems unaffected by the mysterious force. Immune? Simply slower on the uptake? Who knows? At one early point, we’re told the mechanism involves the blocking of our survival instincts — which tells us almost nothing about why people would be compelled to kill themselves.