It is notable that a post 9-11 horror film like this doesn’t get any flack for being irresponsible or premature. Sometime in the past couple of years, we entered a new era. It is safe to entertain ourselves again by being scared of attacks on urban areas.
There are inspired moments in this film that invoke the tension that Shyamalan is aiming for. The opening is strong. The people jumping off the building is horrifying. But many of the other moments of death tip over into the comical.
And the moments between deaths are pretty slack.
Anytime the suicides in this film got too calculated, it became implausible for me. How can someone in a state of numb confusion operate complex machinery in order to do themselves in? This would have been a completely different movie if the victims were acting in alert desperation rather than the slow, robotic way it is played out in the film. The violent moments are horrifying, but I could never shake the sense that the people were already dead by the time their bodies go through their violent motions. The way crowds go completely still as the “event” overtakes them IS very haunting, but I would rather the film didn’t take the victims so far away from consciousness.
Another awkwardness in the film is the problem of how to show people killing themselves at enough of a remove from the main characters that we did not question why the main characters weren’t overcome too. I eventually assumed that nothing was going to happen to them since the film wasn’t giving me much of an indication of where the boundaries of the danger was. The music may tell me that they just had a close call, but I have no other way of knowing how close it was. I suppose that is part of the point, but it drained some of the tension for me instead of heightening it.
Much of the tension for me was hung on the fear that Shyamalan might at any moment cue up the orchestra for a triple-fortissimo musical cannon-shot to my stomach. Hitchcock told us a lot about how surprises like this are cheap shots. Suspense, on the other hand, requires holding a lot of things in the air at once, and by thin threads. The musical hammer Shyamalan is using makes me more afraid about what is going to happen to me in my theater seat rather than what is going to happen to the characters. Perhaps there is something to be said for recreating the visceral animal response in the viewer by using all the cinematic elements at your disposal to yell “BOO!” very, very loudly. I may feel the terror that the characters are supposed to be feeling, but I still think it is a cheap shot that pushes me away from the characters and the scene rather than toward them.
Oh, and I really did think that “the event” was going to shift depending on the emotions of the characters. The presence of the mood ring and the talk about the different kinds of energy humans give off set me up to believe that perhaps LOVE was going to make characters immune to the sickness. A bit too precious, maybe, but I was a little let down by the answer the film gives instead, both at the beginning and at the end: There are things in nature that we will never be able to understand. Whoah. Spooky.
The name of the “happening” or “the event” or “it” is interesting to consider too. There is no final explanation, no understood cause or effect. No concrete blame can rest anywhere. It is a little like “the Nothing” of The Never-Ending Story, in that regard. But this isn’t “The Nothing;” it is the Something. The threat. And a threat, when it becomes too big, and too vague, threatens to loses its poignancy.