From right out of the gate, M. Night Shyamalan was on a downward trajectory.
The Sixth Sense, his breakout ghost story skyrocketed the director into the cultural zeitgeist, earning the rare distinction of a Best Director nod for a debut. But his accelerated acclaim would only lose momentum in the years to come; not immediately, and certainly not quickly, but in a drastically futile way.
Reuniting cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Badlands) with the Pennsylvania countryside (having filmed Signs around Bucks County), M. Night Shyamalan began production on his self-proclaimed “B-movie”, The Happening; an environmental throwback to the paranoia films of the 70’s, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Long Weekend. Trailers relied heavily on the ambiguity of the events within the film, showing quick cuts of everyday citizens killing themselves. Advertisements were hasty to point out the R-rating, noting it as a first for a director who in some ways prided himself on making PG-13 horror that was effective.
Its initial release over a Friday the 13th weekend in 2008 saw it open third behind Kung-Fu Panda and The Incredible Hulk; Shyamalan’s previous film, Lady in the Water, also opened in third. Critics were not too kind, calling it “an awful letdown”, “silly and preachy”, “M. Night Shyamalan’s weakest thriller to date”, while Slate’s Dana Stevens noted that it’s “preposterous and not always in a fun way.” By its third week in theaters, it was number ten at the box office, directly behind Samantha and her friends in the Sex and the City movie. It was abundantly clear that The Happening was in fact, not happening.
But is it really so bad?
Opening in Central Park, two women sit reading on a bench. One of the young women (Cabin in the Woods Kristen Connolly) hears a distant scream, noticing people clawing at their own faces off screen. Suddenly passerby’s stop in place, seemingly frozen as the wind rustles through the trees. Her friend next to her begins repeating sentences, sounding more and more disoriented as the scene goes on. Removing a long, silver hair stick, the young womans friend begins slowly driving its point through her own neck without so much as a blink.
Further downtown, workers begin flinging themselves off their construction site, creating widespread panic and fear. It unfolds with a dull unease, mostly because the way Shyamalan directs fear within his subjects. They react almost autonomously, reserved and even distant, which is as perplexing as it is scary. We know nothing of what’s occurring, outside of the fact that it’s occurring to everyday people; to you, me and anyone we know. It feels quiet and sterile, not out of incompetence or lack of direction, but a deliberate choice to emphasize the unseen presence that is driving everyone to the point of suicide.
Not everyone though, as it becomes apparent that Philadelphia is momentarily safe. Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a high school biology teacher who wishes his students cared more about the disappearance of honey bees, decides to travel to Harrisburg in order to get outside the city in case of terrorism. Its post 9/11 anxieties playing off the fear of US citizens, a low-cost yet effective reminder of the panic that struck the heart of America only six years prior. Joining Elliot is his co-worker Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher with a knack for using his knowledge of numbers to calm nerves – “people are comforted by percentages,” he exclaims! There’s an understated friendship between the two teachers, and a history between Julian and Elliot’s wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), whose bizarre behavior can be attributed to her characters potential infidelities with a mysterious Joey.
As Elliot, Alma, Julian and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) leave the city on a train bound for Harrisburg, it becomes evident that they are moving away from society, which just so happens to be turning on itself in violent ways. Soon, the people of Philadelphia begin falling prey to the invisible threat, which Shyamalan illustrates with somber redundancy depicting not two but three people committing suicide by firearm. One might think he had a message to make about gun-safety, but within the confines of a throwback B-movie, it may be underlining political commentary that isn’t quite there.
The further they leave the city, the more estranged they become with not only their surroundings, but with each other. Deschanel plays Alma with a doe-eyed quirk, showing us that danger is imminent but so is ‘She & Hims’ latest indie pop record. She often stares empty-eyed at the camera and directly through us, appearing to grapple with direction, which was apparently “not easy, but creatively satisfying.” Her struggle with guilt comes off manic and flippant, often fumbling with her cellphone or a vague thought. Each movement and facial idiosyncrasy feels like a parody of a Preston Strurgess character without any of the jazzy charm that made them so likeable.
Wahlberg on the other hand, unintentionally proves his comedic acting chops. His line delivery is reminiscent of his aspiring musician Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, who really wants you to feel his heat. He’s even gone on the record telling Collider back in 2010 that, “It is what it is. F*cking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.” Four months later, Mark Wahlberg starred as a cop in the equally maligned, Max Payne. Fucking trees.
As neighboring cities fall, our survivors train comes to a halt due to a complete lack of communication with the outside world, causing them to split up. Julien hitches a ride to Princeton in order to locate his wife, while Elliot and Alma take Jess 90 miles east. It’s outside the danger zone, an area in the middle of Pennsylvania far enough removed from the suicide toxin released from plant life. It’s a reveal that’s conveniently relayed by a man who owns a nursery and talks to his plants, and who is conveniently their only ride into the countryside.
It’s out there amidst the tall grass where we are further introduced to the sounds of silence, which are frequently broken by gusts of wind. Trees sway and leaves rustle in what is the eco-equivalent of The Langolier’s toothy Raisinets, destroying whatever lies between them and their victims, who in this case have been systematically destroying the world with pollution and overpopulation. Acting as a warning call for the traveling toxins, the wind is both ominously chilling and briefly relieving; replacing James Newton Howard’s often overbearing score, which feels detached from the film itself. It often roams here and there with abrasive horns and chugging strings in an attempt at building tension, though often the birthplace of tension is in between the noise.
Up to this point, most of the suicides have been committed off-screen, with its most lurid act happening within the first five minutes. Looking to cash in on his newly acquired bad boy status with his R-rating, Shyamalan goes all out by showing the murder of two boys, Josh (Spencer Breslin) and Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.), who accompany Elliot and Alma after Elliot deduces that the plants only attack large groups (it’s also where Elliot calls himself a douchebag). After approaching a bordered up house, the two teens become a little hangry, demanding food and calling the residents “pussies”, who proceed to blow them away with a shotgun, on-screen. Its removal of Josh and Jared feels cloying, placed on the screen as to disrupt the relative quite nature of the story, despite depicting Julian slashing his wrists from afar after his ride to Princeton hits a tree head-on. It’s within these moments that The Happening exceeds its own intention, muddling an attempted paranoia B-movie with valueless horror woefully undeserving of its shock-card.
By the end, after Elliot and Alma survive the eco-attack that only targeted New England, and after they adopt Jess – an act that apparently fixes their marital hiccups – we are asked to care about their resolve. We’re asked to feel a connection between them that remained non-existent for most of their (and our) journey. Not because we know or understand them, but simply because they survived. It’s a small request that comes on the reveal of Alma being pregnant, which remains neither a twist nor an ending, as it’s never once hinted at, not even with their eyes.
The Happening is base sentimentality from a director who writes fascinating stories yet often cooks up wearisome characters, who in this case tell you with panged expressions that yes, it really is so bad.
Have you seen The Happening? Is it really so bad? Let us know what you think.