In his novel The Terror, Arthur Machen imagined that the animals, sickened by the carnage of World War I, turned on humankind with tooth and claw. Later, Daphne DuMaurier in a story adapted by Alfred Hitchcock thought the birds might strike at people for reasons known only to themselves. In The Happening, director-writer M. Night Shyamalan explores the idea that plants, threatened by our poor stewardship of their environment, might launch a holocaust against humanity.
It’s the right message at a moment when much of our world seems to be collapsing, except for water levels and prices, which are on the rise. Is Shyamalan the wrong messenger? For their own inane reasons, movie critics—from professionals for the dailies to bloggers wearing footed pajamas as they tap away in their rec rooms—turned in mass against Shyamalan several years ago like lemmings catching wind of a nearby cliff. The filmmaker behind The Sixth Sense fulfilled their worst predictions with Lady in the Water, one of the worst movies ever by a significant director. The Happening is a partial return to form, but it’s a return from the abyss to the rim of catastrophe. Little wonder nine out of 10 film critics have dismissed The Happening with derision. Occasionally, the movie is laughable.
Odd things start happening in Central Park at the story’s onset. Resembling a lost scene from “Twilight Zone,” the crowd suddenly stops in its tracks, frozen in place. And then the people begin killing themselves, as if an evil demiurge flipped the suicide switch. The media proffers terrorism by an airborne toxin as the explanation, even as the suicides spread in rippling waves beyond ground zero. The devastation extends beyond the reach of any terrorist cell.
Unnerved by the news reports, the protagonists, citizens of Shyamalan’s beloved Philadelphia, decide to make for the illusionary safety of the countryside. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), accompanied by their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his little daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), crowd onto the first train out of town. When the engine clanks to a halt and the confused crew abandon their posts, the passengers are left on their own to go their own way to no one knows where. One of Shyamalan’s most effective devices in the early scenes is to show how the contagion of confusion spreads through the cramped train carriages by cell phones. Before long, the phones go dead.
Rather than hold The Happening to the standards of the art house, or Shyamalan’s earlier films, it’s fairer to compare it to the B-grade science-fiction flicks of the 1950s. Like many of those bottom-billed, drive-in movies, The Happening is grounded in contemporary anxieties and explores those fears through an apocalyptic fantasy. And like most of those movies, The Happening stumbles over many clumsy moments. The man being eaten by lions at the Philadelphia Zoo, live on someone’s cell phone camera, is better imagined than seen. Many minor characters are preposterous stick figures barely recognizable as human. While Shyamalan effectively introduced a touch of comic relief into Signs, here the humor is leaden.
With a better cast, The Happening would make a stronger impression. Lacking a Bruce Willis or a Mel Gibson, Shyamalan makes do with the sort of blandness delivered in the ‘50s by the no-namers playing air force generals and government scientists faced with giant tarantulas or space aliens. Wahlberg is mostly competent as the affable everyone high school science teacher but never transcends the pulpy material with a great performance. Deschanel is either one of the worst actresses in the business or was saddled with one of the most poorly written female roles in recent memory.
And yet I’m not willing to give failing marks to Shyamalan’s seriously flawed movie. It has cinematic moments and an interesting story to tell. The backdrops are subtly encoded with omens, from the stout smoking funnels of the nuclear power plant filling the horizon in one scene to the realty sign outside a model McMansion reading: YOU DESERVE THIS. There are effectively creepy scenes, especially when the branches and tall grass begin to shift threateningly as if aroused by a wind that’s not a wind. And while Elliot’s scientific method comes in handy, ultimately, the pretense of schoolbook science is deflated by developments outside the boundary of accepted laws and theory. The kooky old hippy who talks to his plants, one of the daft characters Elliot encounters on the journey, is closer than anyone to the truth of TheHappening.