Shyamalan is back

There seem to be a lot of people gunning for Philadelphia's own M. Night Shyamalan, and "The Happening" will give them more ammo.

It's a typically ambitious Shyamalan venture - he throws his hat in the apocalypse-movie ring, takes up environmentalism in a big way, references 9/11 and pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, all in about 90 minutes.

"The Happening" is also his first R-rated movie, so there's an atypical amount of gore - it opens in New York's Central Park, where an ill wind brings in an unspecified contagion, and dazed pedestrians begin killing themselves.

This is grisly, but it's really a pretty good idea. Most Armageddon movies start with the rise of an external threat, that thing in "Cloverfield," or the many zombies descended from Richard Matheson. Here, we have the bizarre spectacle of people killing themselves, and Shyamalan comes up with some doozies (including one that can be interpreted, sorry to say, as a tasteless invocation of the World Trade Center attacks).

As usual, though, Shyamalan works hard to give the movie an emotional heart, and centers this storyline around the troubled marriage of a Philadelphia couple (Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel) as they flee a local outbreak with a friend (John Leguizamo) and his daughter.

It becomes clear that Elliot (Wahlberg) and Alma will have to repair their relationship and unite if they are to survive the dangerous trip to find safe ground in a rural area.

Elliot, a science teacher, also is charged with figuring what's floating in the air, and how to survive it.

Here is where Shyamalan pays homage to Hitchcock and "The Birds." Just as the birds showed up, ready to muss Tippi Hedren's perfect hair for no good reason, "The Happening" also shows us Mother Nature in an abruptly foul mood.

The refugees think there is safety in the 'burbs, only to find themselves surrounded by the grass, bushes and trees that may have it in for them. Shots of Elliot walking among the elms are meant to give us the same ominous kick as Hedren sitting on the bench, as crows gather steadily behind her. Shyamalan throws in additional Hitch nods when the couple takes refuge in a rural home occupied by Betty Buckley.

"The Happening," alas, does not connect us to its characters like "The Birds," and does offer as many chills, despite the R-rating. Some of the baroque suicides, visited upon complete strangers, begin to smack of comedy.

Shyamalan, of course, cracked a homer in "The Sixth Sense" getting that amazing performance from Haley Joel Osment, and more fine work from Toni Collette, Bruce Willis and Olivia Williams.

Chemistry hasn't been as kind to him of late, and it's a real problem here. Wahlberg and Deschanel don't ring true as a couple, and Wahlberg looks uncomfortable throughout. He was red hot coming off "The Departed," and kudos to Shyamalan for getting him, but after his dynamic/sardonic tough-guy turn for Scorsese, the suit of earnestness he wears here looks wrong.

Greenies may find a rallying point in the movie's environmental message. Part of the theme is that Mother Nature doesn't like crowds, and she doesn't like development. When Elliot seeks refuge in a model home, check out the sales pitch on the billboard hawking the new McMansions: "You deserve this!" Did Sharon Stone build that prop?

Maybe the best bit is the product placement Shyamalan works into the final scene: an "Avatar" backpack, plugging his upcoming trilogy based on the animated Nickelodeon TV series.

It's a good show, Shyamalan seems right for it, and he's already saying encouraging things about the way he'll use special effects. And "Avatar" will give him and his fans a break from the burden he created with his famous suspense brand. I'll bet everybody benefits. *

Produced by Jose Rodriquez, M. Night Shyamalan, Sam Mercer, Barry Mendel, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, music by James Newton Howard, distributed by 20th Century Fox.