Here’s a spooky story: a talented storyteller mesmerizes his audience and then loses his way in a thicket of self-regard so that no matter how hard he tries, each of the stories he tells becomes less powerful than the one before.
M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most talented film-makers working today. But he seems to be running out of ideas. He still knows how to use a camera brilliantly and he is still a master of images that are disturbing in an intriguing way. But so much of this movie seem greatest hits cut and pasted from his other, better films, as generic as the title (anyone else here humming the Supremes song?). There is a train as in “Unbreakable.” There is a scene in a schoolroom as in “The Sixth Sense.” A child is important to the story as in “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” Like “Signs” there is a scary scene with characters trapped in a beautiful old house in a remote location.
“There appears to be an event happening.” All at once, without warning, people in New York City’s Central park become disoriented and then self-destructive. They begin to kill themselves. Bodies come hurtling from the girders of a construction project. A cop pulls out his gun and kills himself. Others grab the gun lying near his body to shoot themselves with the remaining bullets. Have terrorists released toxins into the air? Is it some kind of alien attack? No one knows.
In Philadelphia, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is called out of class. The students are being sent home. He and his best friend Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher, decide it will be safer away from the city. Julian’s wife is out of town but will meet up with them. Elliot’s slightly estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) comes along but insists on sitting alone. Then, in the middle of nowhere, the train stops. “We’ve lost contact,” the conductor tells them. “With whom?” “Everyone.”
Julian goes in search of his wife, leaving his shy daughter with Elliot. And so Elliot, Alma, and the little girl go on the run, not knowing anything about what it is they are running from or where they are running to.
Many of the individual scenes deliver. Shyamalan knows how to create an eerie mood and when to pepper the story with release, whether a gasp or a laugh. But there is some unintentional humor as Elliot and Alma pause to resolve their marital conflicts, natter about a mood ring, and Elliot tries to make conversation with a potted plastic plant. The talented Wahlberg and Deschanel do their best but cannot make much of an impression with cardboard characters and clunky exposition. Wahlberg manages some warmth now and then but Deschanel has little do to but open her eyes wide. Those blue eyes seem to be Shyamalan’s favorite special effect. The exposition is intrusively inserted and clumsily handled. And in the last half hour, just as things should be ramping up, all of the air rushes out like a stuck balloon. Shyamalan does not always have to deliver a twist, but he does have to deliver an ending better than this one.
Parents should know that this movie has a good deal of violence, some graphic, multiple suicides, shooting death of teenagers, mauling by an animal, some grisly images of wounds and dead bodies, disturbing themes including the deaths of hundreds of people, and brief strong language. There is a sexual joke and there are some mild references to infidelity.
Family discussion: Julian has to make a very difficult choice between protecting his wife and protecting his daughter. What were the reasons for the decision he made and do you agree? What other choices made by the people in this movie seemed right or wrong to you?
If you like this, try: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” the classic thriller “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (the original and first remake) and M. Night Shyamalan movies “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs”