The Incredible Hulk

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley. Written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Running Time: 91mins
Rated: Rated MA (strong violence)

In New York's Central Park, strollers cease strolling and stand motionless. A woman seated on a park bench pulls a long needle from her hair and plunges it into her neck. From atop a nearby building site, workers start hurling themselves to the pavement. This is the start of the mysterious happening that threatens civilization.

M. Night Shyamalan's debut film,1999's 'The Sixth Sense', was about a child who sees dead people. But nobody sees anything in this, his eighth feature, which is a variation on the old last-people-left-alive-as-mankind-faces-extinction plot. In his scenario it's not alien critters or walking zombies doing the killing. The victims are killing themselves, and the orgy of self-destruction is preceded by nothing more ominous than a gentle breeze.

As the happening begins, the movie's hero, amiable high-school teacher Elliott Moore (played amiably by Mark Wahlberg), is asking his science students to theorise about the mass disappearance of bees, a natural phenomenon that clearly we are meant to associate with the 'happening'. In this Apocalypse, mankind's end is coming about through nature.

A nurseryman posits that it is the plants taking revenge, and pundits on TV suggest it might be a wind-borne neuro-toxin that somehow disables the brain's apparatus for self-preservation. But nobody really knows why people are suiciding.

Observing that the happening occurs first in large gatherings then in successively smaller groups, Elliott leads his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), a friend's eight-year-old daughter and a small band of followers out of the city and into the remote Pennsylvania countryside in an attempt to escape the invisible dread. But inevitably it keeps closing in.

The Indian-American writer/director Shyamalan adopts a pleasingly old-fashioned approach to his tale. He eschews flashy camerawork and he use of crashing sound-effects to underscore dramatic moments. Instead, like the mystery contagion itself, he works unobtrusively to achieve his end, and the result is an engaging, mildly unsettling, quietly thought-provoking thriller.

The sub-plot about Elliott's and Alma's marriage problems is underdone, and the colourless child (Ashlyn Sanchez) fails to generate much empathy, but the performances on the whole are very good. Broadway diva Betty Buckley, as an eccentric resident of the boondocks, makes a big impression, as do the improbably named Zooey Deschanel's piercing blue eyes.

The MA rating for strong violence somewhat surprises, because viewing the film I was admiring the restraint with which Shyamalan handles what is an intrinsic aspect of the story. Apart from the chilling needle episode in the opening scenes, only once (when a barricaded farmer shoots a child trying to break into his house) does it approach the graphic bloodshed that is such a blight on film standards these days. Most of the killing occurs off-screen - someone picks up a gun off the ground, and the camera stays on the feet until a shot is heard and the body falls.

But different people have difference tolerance levels for screen violence. What may seem mild in comparison to what other directors are getting away with can still be too strong for some.
Fox Out June 12

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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