The Happening (20th Century Fox) could be the title for every film M. Night Shyamalan has made. His movies are less like stories that you watch unfold than prefabricated experiences that happen to you. Some of them are pleasurable, like the wicked head game that was The Sixth Sense; some tedious, like the ponderous parlor trick of The Village. But you have to give the man this much due: He believes in his fun-house visions, as loony (Signs) or laughable (Lady in the Water) as they may be.
The Happening opens with a bang-up horror sequence worthy of George Romero or vintage David Cronenberg. One windy morning, Central Park is suddenly swept by a wave of suicides. Construction workers leap from rooftops in droves as pretty girls on benches find ways to off themselves with their hair accessories. Within hours, the plague of self-annihilation has spread to Philadelphia, where high-school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is grilling his students on the unexplained disappearance of honeybees. Soon it’s Elliot who’s on the endangered species list as he flees the wind-borne toxin (whose not-hard-to-guess origin shall remain unrevealed here) with his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and their friend’s child (Ashlyn Sanchez).
If Romero or Cronenberg were filming this story, they would enjoy earning the R rating that Shyamalan seems to be dutifully working toward with his ever-grosser suicide scenarios: A zookeeper politely offers his arms to a pair of lions for chomping! A man lies in front of a lawn mower and threshes himself to death! The dialogue is so stiff that it’s hard to tell at what point a character has crossed over into must-kill-self zombiedom (this is particularly true of Deschanel, with her passive affect and gigantic Village of the Damnedeyes). The whole solemn concoction is preposterous and not always in a fun way—even at 99 minutes’ running time, the movie provides plenty of opportunities for watch-consultation in the dark. But there’s also an efficiently maintained hum of low-level anxiety. The old-school horror tricks (the fake scare followed by a real one, the safe haven that isn’t) feel more like cribbing than homage, but they get the job done. If you’re a fan of Shyamalan’s gimmicky endings, this movie’s twist on the twist may surprise you. But here I shall draw the veil, out of respect for those who prefer to let The Happening just happen.
Ang Lee’s legendary misfire The Hulk (2003) is now just a blur of hazily recalled images: I recall a brooding Eric Bana, a weird Oedipal back story involving Nick Nolte, and some mutant poodles attacking Jennifer Connelly’s car. Then again, The Incredible Hulk (Universal), a new film directed by Louis Leterrier, is also a hazy blur, and I saw it less than 48 hours ago. The hefty green corpse of Lee’s movie has barely had time to molder in its grave, but Marvel Studios knows a potentially verdant franchise when it sees one, and so the Hulk has been resurrected—if not revitalized—in a new film that’s neither a remake nor a sequel but a kind of Hulk 2.0.
This provenance puts The Incredible Hulk in an odd position, expectationswise. Have hopes been lowered by the chronological proximity of the prior Hulk or raised by its generally agreed-upon suckiness? Why remake a crappy movie five years later if it’s only going to be marginally less crappy? The recent publicity over Ed Norton’s rumored clashes with Marvel over the final cut, and his official statement to Entertainment Weekly assuring fans that the resulting movie was totally not going to blow, have only raised (or lowered!) expectations even further.
So, it’s a shame that the movie decided to split the difference by turning out incredibly, colossally… OK. There’s nothing wrong with Leterrier’s slick, fast-paced direction or with Norton’s performance as Bruce Banner, the tormented scientist who turns into a rampaging green giant when he’s angry. (If you don’t have enough familiarity with the character to know why, the montage under the opening credits confers a hasty degree in gamma-ray pseudoscience.) Tim Roth makes for an adequate villain as Emil Blonsky, an elite soldier with a Faustian curiosity about Banner’s capacity for transformation. (It’s the second role Roth’s done in the past year in which his body miraculously begins aging backward. Is Mr. Orange secretly Merlin the wizard?) Although the new Hulk, like his 2003 counterpart, is entirely computer-generated, the technology has progressed enough that he no longer resembles an action figure carved from lime Jello.
After a jaw-dropping opening shot of Rocinha, a vast cliff-side slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we find Banner living incognito in a hovel there, employed at a soda bottling plant and studying anger control with a Brazilian yogi. But it’s no use; when a U.S. Army team led by Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) bursts in to kidnap him for weapons research, Banner morphs into the familiar behemoth in torn trousers. (An ongoing gag about how he shops for those size-shifting pants is one of the few good jokes in this often-somber film.) From there, the film is a rhythmic (some might say soporific) flow of ever-louder action set pieces, escalating to a smackdown in Harlem, N.Y., between the Hulk and his nemesis, the vaguely reptilian Abomination.
Other observations culled from this two-hour onslaught of stimuli: The Hulk’s transition from an amoral destructive force to a fighter for right happens too suddenly and without sufficient motivation. Liv Tyler, who plays Banner’s biologist girlfriend Betty Ross, appears to be made of marzipan—sweet, pliant, and utterly bland. Tim Blake Nelson, the Don Knotts of his generation, kills in a small part as a socially awkward scientist eager to help the couple. And Robert Downey Jr., who pops up as Iron Man’s Tony Stark in a cross-promotional cameo late in the film, is such a diabolical cad he makes the slender, diffident Norton look like a choirboy.
It’s been nearly a year since the last Slate summer-movie reader contest, in which contestants sent in their ideas for menacing action-movie one-liners (“Veni, vidi, vici, sugarplum.”). The Incredible Hulk’s curious status as a franchise reboot raises an obvious question: What blockbuster made in the last five years would you remake now, how would you cast it, and why? I’ll dig through the office storage room for an appropriately unoriginal prize and publish the results late next week. Responses must be fewer than 100 words (much fewer would be nice) and must arrive in my inbox, firstname.lastname@example.org, by Tuesday, June 17, at 10 p.m. ET.