Hear me out: why The Happening isn't a bad movie

The latest in our series of writers defending hated films is a plea to reconsider M Night Shyamalan’s human v nature thriller

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 closeups that revel in their devastation and distress. It might feel overly earnest, yet there’s something to such clearcut emotionalism that acknowledges the very real violence and horror of the events taking place. Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel get a lot of flak 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.

  • The Happening is available to rent digitally in the US and on Disney+ in the UK

Contributor

Beatrice Loayza

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hear me out: why Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes isn't a bad movie
The latest in our series of writers standing up for loathed films is an impassioned defence of the 2001 take on the 60s classic

Radheyan Simonpillai

28, Jan, 2021 @7:37 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why 2019's Serenity isn't a bad movie
The latest in our series of writers sticking up for hated films is a defense for the starry noir with a ridiculed big twist

Noah Gittell

05, Apr, 2021 @1:29 PM

Article image
Hear me out: why Your Highness isn't a bad movie
The latest in our series of writers defending loathed films is a plea to reconsider David Gordon Green’s foul-mouthed fantasy adventure

Jesse Hassenger

05, Feb, 2021 @7:22 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why Johnny Mnemonic isn’t a bad movie
The latest in our series of writers defending films hated by many is an ode to the 1995 William Gibson adaptation starring Keanu Reeves as a tech antihero

Rowan Righelato

30, Apr, 2021 @6:07 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why 2014’s Robocop isn’t a bad movie
Continuing our series of writers defending films hated by most is a tribute to the maligned remake of Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi thriller

Richard Knightwell

28, May, 2021 @6:24 AM

Article image
The Happening: a disaster on so many levels – film on TV recap

Stuart Heritage: The Happening may have marked a box-office low for M Night Shyamalan, but the film's tale of deadly pollen, tiramisu and its committed flippancy from Mark Wahlberg demand to be watched

Stuart Heritage

15, Jun, 2014 @9:00 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why Deep Rising isn’t a bad movie
The latest in our series of writers defending movies hated by most is a plea to reconsider a boisterously entertaining B-movie horror

Andrew Crump

07, May, 2021 @6:14 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why S1m0ne isn't a bad movie
Continuing our series of writers defending unloved films is a reappraisal of Andrew Niccol’s flop satire starring Al Pacino as a director who creates a virtual actor

Kathryn Bromwich

22, Feb, 2021 @7:27 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why Return to Oz isn't a bad movie
The latest in our series of writers going to the bat for loathed films is a defence of a dark and daring sequel to a fantasy classic

Rick Burin

12, Feb, 2021 @7:17 AM

Article image
Hear me out: why Only God Forgives isn't a bad movie
In the first of a new series of writers defending mostly loathed films, a plea to reconsider Nicolas Winding Refn’s gory follow-up to Drive

Scott Tobias

08, Jan, 2021 @7:34 AM