The Happening and The Incredible Hulk reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
June 13 2008 12:03 PM

The Happening and The Incredible Hulk

Two summer blockbusters reviewed and a reader contest.

To listen to Slate's Spoiler Special about The Happening, click the arrow button on the player: You can also click here to download the MP3 file, or you can subscribe to the Spoiler Special podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.

The Happening. Click image to expand.
The Happening

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.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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).

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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.

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The Incredible Hulk. Click image to expand.
The Incredible Hulk

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.