The Happening is the latest in a long line of Hollywood movies that depict attacks of one sort (terrorist) or another (alien) upon New York City. A mysterious mass hysteria strikes the idyllic Bethesda Terrace (a place I walk through several times a week) in Manhattan’s Central Park, and quickly fans out to the entire city. What is later referred to as “the event” or “the happening” (the latter a term popularized by hippies, I believe) appears to be some kind of airborne toxin that causes every human being within range to calmly and passively commit suicide. Speaking as a New Yorker that lived through 9/11, this opening sequence pushes fewer emotional buttons than, say Cloverfield, which was explicitly analogous to post-9/11 New York as Godzilla was to post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan. But it’s impossible to not be shaken by the charged image of office workers willingly jumping to their deaths from skyscrapers.
Having ticked the disaster movie genre box of “wholesale massacre in Manhattan,” writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan abandons New York for the remainder of the movie and transfers the action to his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia, PA. High school teachers Eliot (“Marky” Mark Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) catch wind (so to speak) of the event, and presciently make plans to take the next Amtrak train out of 30th Street Station with their families. Eliot is experiencing some friction in his marriage with Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and warns Julian that she may be acting “weird.” It’s up to the viewer to decide if he’s talking about the character Alma or the actress Zooey, whose eyes and face were truly made for the movies but whose eccentric line readings are indeed “weird.”
The train halts on the way from Philly to Harrisburg, stranding the occupants in the middle of nowhere — which is to say, the real-life small town Filbert, PA. Science teacher Eliot berates himself “be scientific, douchebag!” and uses logic to deduce the facts from the bits of evidence he’s picked up along the way: his hunch is that they are not experiencing a terrorist chemical attack, but rather that the earth’s biosphere is releasing a fatal toxin targeted to areas heavily populated by humans. They set off on foot in small groups into the kind of beautiful rolling fields where Shyamalan set his earlier parable The Village.
They come across a for-sale “Model Home”, a giant McMansion full of artificial goodies. The perfect dream home is actually in no way a refuge: there is no food or shelter, and it only serves as a lure to other groups less enlightened than they; the mere arrival of even one more fellow traveller could boost the local population to a point where the plants may attack. Here The film’s first hint of humor appears: Eliot notices a giant indoor plant eerily looming in a corner. He attempts to negotiate with it for the future of humanity, until he realizes that it too is plastic. The artificial model home is a blunt metaphor for humanity’s disposable consumerism and impact upon the environment.
At this point, The Happening becomes a different movie, a better one, receiving a much-needed injection of Shyamalan’s characteristic wit and masterful use of horror and suspense tropes: creepy shadows half glimpsed through window slats, batty old lady (Betty Buckley) with creepy dolls in her bed, etc. But overall it’s uncharacteristically clumsy. His best films (for my money: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) are plotted so tight you couldn’t remove a single frame without harming them.
It’s unfortunately overwritten with pages and pages of poor dialogue, including this unintentional howler featured in the trailer: note Marky Mark’s impeccable grammar upon being told his Amtrak train has lost contact: “With whom?” Julian also states with odd formality that his wife is travelling separately to “the town of Princeton.” To be charitable, perhaps Shyamalan figured high school teachers might habitually speak clearly with correct grammar.
There’s too strong a reliance on fake television news broadcasts to convey exposition (a device only resorted to once or twice in Signs), even concluding the film with a talking head scientist explaining the takeaway message for the slower members of the audience: “we’re threatening the planet.” Watch The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable again and see how much Shyamalan at his best is able to communicate without dialogue. How much would Unbreakable have sucked if Bruce Willis’ character had openly mused about how he was turning into Superman?
Significantly for a director known for working in the horror & suspense genres (fantasy, too, if you count the execrable misstep The Lady in the Water), The Happening is Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie. As if to live up to its horror film billing, the narrative frequently pauses for conspicuously gory set-pieces: a woman stabs herself with a knitting needle, a man sets a lawn mower to run over himself, etc. The brief episodes of gore contrast with what must have been the major challenge for his story: to visualize something inherently invisible: a wind-born toxin. Shyamalan signals an oncoming attack with gusts of wind. Which is, of course, preposterous because plants don’t cause wind. The characters outrunning wind is about as preposterous as the advancing killer frost in Roland Emmerich’s environmental disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.
The film’s environmental issues first appear with a faint flavor of creationism in an early scene set in Eliot’s classroom. He believes there are aspects of nature we may never truly understand, although science may slap an explanation on them in retrospect. But “just a theory” is the language of anti-intellectual creationists who wish to discount evolution. In Shyamalan’s hindu worldview, does an act of nature equal an act of god? Is the earth being malicious, defensive, or both? The planet may not be acting with conscious intelligence, but rather as a mere reaction to stimuli; a kind of thinning of the herds.
As was the case with the 2003 blackout in the northeast, Shyamalan was correct in observing that everyone’s first theory in any post 9/11 calamity would be that it’s a terrorist attack. But it’s pretty much established very early that the culprits are the plants. This pretty much drains the suspense out of the picture, and I actually wished for one of Shyamalan’s patented twist endings. It does seem hugely wimpy compared the ruthless and unsparing The Mist. If Shyamalan had had the guts to go for a bleak ending like writer/director Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation, The Happening might have been better received and perhaps remembered as one of his best.