M Night Shyamalan’s critically-lambasted sci-fi mystery The Happening isn’t so-bad-it’s-good, it’s just plain good.
Since his glory days in the late 90s and early 2000s, The Sixth Sense director has become somewhat of a punchline in Hollywood for his bizarro scripts and predictably twist-laden style, with The Happening generally considered (in addition to his deservedly panned 2010 adventure flick, The Last Airbender) a low-point. Audiences hoping for a slow-burn thriller in the mode of his early work instead got something much weirder and more unhinged: a climate crisis parable in which the plants lash out against humankind by secreting neurotoxins that make people suicidal. On top of its already outlandish plot, the movie piled on performances so earnest they felt goofy and dialogue seemingly pulled out of a strange dream. And yet, so eager were viewers to pick apart its apparent failures at meeting blandly conventional standards of good film-making (the kind that privileges realistic acting and natural dialogue as markers of quality), that the film’s intentional humor and absurdism must have gone over their heads.
Drawing from mid-century B-movie tropes, The Happening imagines a post-9/11 crisis in the mode of a nuclear age disaster film steeped in crippling paranoia. It begins in Manhattan, where construction workers start throwing themselves off buildings, and cops take out their guns and shoot themselves in the head. This fever spreads throughout the north-east, leading entire cities to evacuate: though on what grounds? The authorities, much less the average person, haven’t the slightest idea what’s causing these mass suicides. In their frenzied, directionless desperation, people simply begin to run. Shyamalan envisions a mass exodus from Philadelphia through a couple’s perspective, with each leg of their journey increasingly distanced from the potential dangers of civilization. Yet in the end, even the wind seems to pose a threat. Darkly hilarious is the idea that this “virus” might be an act of war. When a zookeeper willingly gets his limbs ripped off by a pack of lions, an onlooker cries out: “What kinds of terrorists are these?”
Of course, the “terrorists” have nothing to do with the suicide plague. Nevertheless, the film’s harrowing uncertainty, and this notion that anyone and anything might be weaponized against you at any time, seems to echo the “war on terror” and the myth of the omnipresent enemy advanced by political rhetoric at the time. Shyamalan is certainly heavy-handed in his warning about the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, yet embedded in his approach is a near-Buñuelian parody of people’s inability to tell the difference between a terror attack and an environmental catastrophe.
Watching it recently for this writing, however, I was struck by emotional whiplash: how one moment I’d be cackling at the sheer ridiculousness of a man allowing himself to get run over by a lawnmower, and in the next thrust into a moment of intense, wobbly-eyed passion when John Leguizamo’s character embarks on what’s destined to be a suicide mission to rescue his missing wife. Shyamalan tempers his mockery of our fears (ie Mark Wahlberg talking to a plant, only to find out it’s made of plastic) with characters that play everything entirely straight – simultaneously in on the joke and yet oddly dignified in their struggle. Like in the melodramas of old Hollywood, The Happening understands the power of faces, and luxuriates in those of its actors with extreme facial close-ups that revel in their devastation and distress. It might feel overly earnest, yet there’s something to such clear-cut emotionalism that acknowledges the very real violence and horror of the events taking place. Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel get a lot of flack for their performances here, yet they both seem to be playing off the kind of dopey American idyllicism conveyed by directors like Frank Capra – without their gushing sentimentality and doe-eyed goodness, the film’s deadpan humor would lose much of its bite.
But what I find particularly resonant about The Happening, especially in these pandemic times, is the way it brings to bear the frailty of human knowledge, how easily our scientific and civilizational advances topple when confronted with something that eludes understanding. Shyamalan recapitulates Hitchcock’s The Birds in this regard, but adds to its own mystifying tale of nature’s vengeance, an intense cynicism that underscores its human relations. “Can you believe how crappy people are?” exclaims Wahlberg in his signature whine. If anything, the film makes this point clear by showing just how individualistic and ridiculously brutal folks can get when panicked: take for instance the scene when an unidentified number of people (Shyamalan wisely leaves it up to our imagination) in a rundown house reject our protagonists’ pleas for food and shelter, then murder two of their more insistent teenage companions with a shotgun peeping through the walls
The real kicker comes at the very end, though contrary to expectation it doesn’t come in the form of a surprise. It’s actually quite banal, and all the more haunting because of it: the crisis ends and people get back to their routines and comfortable homes. The corpses may have already faded from memory, yet society’s inability to truly grasp and address the root cause of the catastrophe means it’ll inevitably happen again. And so it does.