It’s good to see M. Night Shyamalan return. With the release of SPLIT, the once-famous-and-then-despised filmmaker has made two quite good films in a row (the other being THE VISIT), and audiences are beginning to acknowledge his talents as a filmmaker never left him. After a string of badly-reviewed and notorious genre films, Shyamalan is back.
But we can all remember it vividly, can’t we? That time when M. Night Shyamalan was the go-to name for all things awful and misguided? From the release of THE VILLAGE in 2004 all the way through the release of AFTER EARTH in 2013, Shyamalan’s films were all objects of widespread, wolfpack-like mockery, and the man’s name was synonymous with cinematic blunder. The critics were harsh, and the geeks even harsher. There are people who, to this very day, wince when they talk about THE LAST AIRBENDER, or the ego-stroking LADY IN THE WATER. And I have met no one who has bothered to defend — or even attempt to defend — his 2008 film THE HAPPENING.
As of this writing, THE HAPPENING enjoys an inauspicious 18% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has been the subject of parodies and the object of ire to numerous “cranky critics.” Filmgoing culture seems to see THE HAPPENING as one of the most risible and laughable horror movies ever made. To anyone who makes that claim, I boldly (and confrontationally) declare that you haven’t seen enough horror movies, and also — dare I say it? — THE HAPPENING is actually an okay movie.
There. I said it. THE HAPPENING is not bad.
The film’s premise seems to be a point of contention, so I’ll start there in my defense.
Throughout the world there seems to be a bizarre rash of suicides: without warning, people grow despondent, insane, and promptly take their own lives with whatever’s at hand. There are numerous scary sequences where people stab themselves with hair pins, cut their wrists with shattered glass, and in one gruesome sequence, feed themselves to hungry lions. There is no expression on the victims’ faces — just cold logic. Why are people killing themselves?
It’s eventually revealed that the plants and trees of the world are reacting adversely to humanity: the environment has become so polluted that plants are releasing a self-defense toxin into the air that drives the threat away — and as a result, it drives humans to insanity and death. This toxin essentially inverts humans’ survival instinct.
This is, as explained in the movie, based in fact: there are indeed plants who, when threatened, can release chemicals that make attackers go insane and kill themselves. There was even an interview in Wired magazine, released when the film came out, clarifying the science and explaining that some plants do indeed release damaging toxins when their environment suddenly changes. Not all plants do this, of course, and the science is merely the jumping-off point for a fantasy horror film (very akin to the way Shyamalan treats Dissociative Identity Disorder in SPLIT), but there’s enough actual science involved to make the film seem believable as a cautionary tale.
Indeed, THE HAPPENING is most effective as a cautionary tale: It’s hard to make humans’ impact on the Earth’s environment seem urgent and scary without the discussion — rather unfortunately — devolving into partisan politics. Films that tackle the topic tend to be either post-apocalyptic fantasies (THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW), or stern, finger-wagging documentaries (THE 11th HOUR; AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH). Shyamalan attempted — and, in my eye, largely succeeded — in turning humanity’s casual abuse of the planet into the fodder for an effective thriller that addresses the problem on a global scale. Who’s the monster in THE HAPPENING? Is it a single mutated creature? And where does it take place? Is it a single outpost in the Arctic? No. The monster is all living plant life, and the setting is the whole world. The most casual, often ignored objects around us — fucking trees — are now a threat. There’s something kind of terrifying about that.
Another common complaint about THE HAPPENING is the performance of Mark Wahlberg. People say he plays his part too broadly, and that his relationship with his wife is too flip and silly. In a proper horror film, the argument seems to imply that the hero should be fascinated, stern, afraid, and then — in reaction to the horror — either eventually resolute or continuously timid. Shyamalan and Wahlberg have, I think, deliberately eschewed standard horror movie heroics in favor of something a little bit more grounded… and, dare I say, a little bit more realistic.
Wahlberg plays Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher who knows how to communicate with his classes, and seems eager to share his knowledge with the world. He’s an educated guy, makes goofy jokes, and has a unique way of communicating. In short, he’s a dork. Perhaps Elliot may have read better if he were played by a dorkier actor — Wahlberg is comfortable and handsome — but Wahlberg’s performance does highlight just how awkward and weird Elliot is. Imagine if a socially awkward Bill Nye were the hero of a horror movie. He’d be liked, but he also wouldn’t have the social wherewithal to express himself too well in extreme situations.
The weird moments of Wahlberg trying to talk down a crazy woman (“Ma’am, no!“), or the moment when he decides to talk to a tree when in private are not bad character decisions, but deliberate comic moments that highlight what kind of guy Elliot is: an ill-prepared, marginally educated Everyman… and, yes, a funny guy.
Shyamalan himself is — and this is often overlooked — a funny filmmaker. While his films are mostly thrillers and horror movies, he likes to add numerable comedic moments where characters banter, are found in embarrassing situations, and simply say funny things. The tone of his films is often so dire that the comedy is overlooked by audiences, but it’s still there. So Wahlberg is, in many ways, meant to be the comedic balance to the film’s otherwise dark tone. When the end of the world seems to be nigh, we will not all necessarily become stern survivors or panic machines. Most of us, I’m willing to bet, will keep our senses of humor throughout. We will not stop being dorks, just because our lives are in danger.
One may also break out that old argument that THE HAPPENING was a disappointment because of when it came out — and, oddly, the size of the audience. If THE HAPPENING was a smaller, indie release, it’s likely it would be praised for making a lot out of a little — or that Shyamalan was being deliberately thoughtful. Audiences may have even latched onto the film’s playful oddness. But because it was such a high-profile release from a beloved director, people began nitpicking almost immediately. Critics notice this phenomenon sharply: when an audience sees a bigger release, they tend to focus on small details with more fervency. Case in point: You can find infinite conversations online on the finer points of ROGUE ONE, but fewer in-depth analyses of the more complex and worthy-of-discussion ELLE.
THE HAPPENING may have been a victim of its own high profile. People wanted a broad, accessible horror thriller, and instead got a more thoughtful, striking, and, yes, odd movie. THE HAPPENING is a decent thriller, a funny film, and an interesting cautionary tale. It’s a weird little pop musing on environmental disaster, trapped in the suit of a Hollywood thriller. It has good scares, a great tone, and a fine message.
Try it again. You’ll find that it doesn’t suck.