Movie Review – The Happening (2008)

2008’s The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan’s fifth film after his critically acclaimed The Sixth Sense (1999), opens with scenes of beautiful brutality. A woman on a park bench near Central Park looks off camera and says that she sees people clawing at themselves. Her friend then takes a silvery hair-pin and jabs into her own neck. Meanwhile at a construction site the camera pans to see workers falling violently and voluntarily to their death, smacking and crunching on the pavement. Considering what is later found to be the film’s subtext, these suicides could be seen as a metaphor for mankind’s actions toward the environment, effectively sealing its own doom. However, it may more accurately describe M. Night Shyamalan’s career.

What follows these memorable first scenes is a steady decline in quality, logic, and continuity. The film’s first and most evident weakness is that it is badly miscast, made obvious by Mark Wahlberg’s first scenes as a high school science teacher named Elliot. Shyamalan apparently wrote the lead role with the actor in mind, but Wahlberg, while a capable actor in certain scenarios, was not made for this. His delivery is almost comical, and at many times in the film you question whether or not it is all supposed to be intentionally campy. He speaks with a high, light voice, almost a loud whisper, and never diverges from this tone no matter the situation. One scene in particular, towards the end of the movie, involves an old, disturbed woman accusing his character of plotting to kill her (played by a genuinely creepy Betty Buckley in one of the film’s few good performances). I cannot adequately portray the hilarity of how Wahlberg’s answer, “What?! … No!” is delivered, but I will say that if he had then added, “Gee whiz, ma’am, that would be bonkers!” it would have been fitting.

Mark Wahlberg adds physical presence to a role that does not call for it. He is not the only actor miscast, as Zooey Deschanel, who plays Elliot’s wife, Alma, wanders throughout the film doe-eyed and dazed. She seems as confused about her character as we are about the director’s decisions. Shyamalan can without a doubt frame a beautiful shot, but his constant use of close-ups demands actors who can convey subtle emotions. John Leguizamo, as Elliot’s friend, whose performances are often criticized by viewers, is the only other convincing player and is sadly underused.

The Happening also suffers from continuity issues. Remember that description of people clawing at themselves? We never see it. Instead, those affected by the phenomena become confused and then calmly commit suicide.

At one point the characters are riding a train that stops in the middle of nowhere. When Elliot asks what’s happened, the conductor tells him they have lost contact, and when he asks with whom, the conductor answers, “Everyone.” Color me confused, then, when a few moments later the characters are in a diner where people are using cell phones and watching news broadcasts – is Amtrak communication technology really that inept? This diner scene also demonstrates just how incoherent and badly constructed this film is when a woman announces she has received a video from her daughter on her phone. The video shows a man in a zoo being mauled by tigers in the most unrealistic and unnatural manner reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, and again I wonder if I have been tricked into watching a comedy. Other frustrations abound: twice the movie shows us people who are unaffected by the “happening” with no explanation or acknowledgment. Also, the ending, which I will not give away, is so cheery and unbelievable that it is almost nauseating – just pay attention to the passage of time to realize why and be prepared to feel like your intelligence has been viciously assaulted.

The film, no matter how well-acted it could have been, could still not be saved due to its atrocious script. The dialogue is unnatural and the film’s pacing is awkward. The very premise, too, becomes more ridiculous the more one thinks about it. In a terribly convenient scene where a greenhouse owner solves the mystery halfway through the film, we find that the plants are releasing a neurotoxin which changes people’s self-defense instinct into a self-destruct one, and each time the wind blows it gets carried. So Shyamalan seeks throughout the film to make us afraid of wind. It should come as no shock that he does not succeed. For better eco-horror with nature fighting back, stick with Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant The Birds (1963) or the slew of “big creatures attack” films from the 1950s, which even with their camp factor are more entertaining.

The Happening calls back to the paranoia films of earlier decades and makes one wish they rewatched them instead, or at least had an MST3K soundtrack to turn to. Shyamalan has made some great films in the past, but as for this movie… well, to take inspiration from This Is Spinal Tap (1984), shit happens.

Grade: D-