'The Happening' Is A Secretly Brilliant Film (Really)
After he was considered the amazing lovechild of Hitchcock and Spielberg, but before the internet lost its collective shit over how cool Glass looks, M. Night Shyamalan was in a bit of a rough patch, one which caused more than a dozen countries to pass laws banning cinema altogether.
The low point was arguably 2008's The Happening, in which a befuddled Mark Wahlberg flees from a regional rebellion of disgruntled trees. After certifiable classics like Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, The Happening felt like drunk Shyamalan karaoke.
And that's where I come in, the "Maybe this stink bomb is secretly genius" guy. I think that underneath The Happening's corn dog veneer, there is a filet mignon of a movie that would rank up with Shyamalan's best. My theory starts with refuting its central plot ...
It Wasn't The Plants
I realize that many of you barely remember anything about this movie, or only know it from seeing other people make fun of it, so here's a brief summary:
In New York, people begin spontaneously committing suicide. The news speculates that it's due to some kind of terrorist neurotoxin, and the epidemic quickly spreads across the Northeastern U.S. Mark Wahlberg's character and some friends hit the road, and along the way, they run into a guy who works at a greenhouse, who reveals that the phenomenon is caused by local plant life simultaneously turning against humanity. The plants are supposedly releasing a deadly undetectable toxin whenever they detect too many humans are congregating together.
The crisis then abruptly ends, and at the conclusion of the film, an expert on television confirms the "killer plants" theory, and then we get a hint that the whole thing is about to start again.
That plot is fertile ground for all sorts of unintentional hilarity, as our characters have to frantically flee from a grove of gently rustling trees. Lest you think I'm joking, here's the infamous "running from the wind" sequence, wherein everyone splits into smaller groups to evade ... Jesus ... the wind, so that the plants won't detect them.
That makes no sense as a defense mechanism, even within the framework of the story. The wind at this point is either laden with toxins or it isn't. Splitting into small groups after it is already blowing toward you isn't going to help.
To make it stupider, in another scene, a few travelling survivors chance upon a bunch of people who have killed themselves. They immediately shut the windows of the car, only to discover a small opening on the roof, which is enough for everyone to become "infected" and also commit suicide. How can this tiny slit possibly be large enough for the plants to detect the handful of people in a car, if it's a foolproof plan to stay in the same-sized group when moving around outside later?
It's all just so embarrassing for everyone involved (both the fictional characters and the actors). My argument is that this is all supposed to be ridiculous. The characters' actions are absurd to an outside observer (us), but not to the characters themselves. I think that's secretly the point.
It's A Story About Mass Hysteria
Unlike spontaneous botanical assault, mass hysteria is real, and it's one of the freakiest scientifically legitimate phenomena known to man. It once caused hundreds of people to dance continuously for a month until they died of exhaustion, it made a bunch of school children start fainting for no reason, and it's apparently behind the recent chilling story of a family of 11 killing themselves.
A little spark of panic in the right group, under the right conditions, and madness spreads like wildfire. Everyone's irrational terror feeds on each other's, creating a lethal feedback loop.
The event in The Happening is quickly declared to be a chemical terrorist attack. They even define the symptoms: "The first stage is confused speech. The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction. The last stage is fatal." So not just an attack, but an attack with a totally undetectable gas that A) drives you crazy and B) makes you murder yourself. Yeah, I'm thinking hysteria would take over pretty quickly after such an attack. Or even after the rumor of such an attack.
This would be why the "toxin" seems to be affecting large groups of people. Not because homicidal plants have learned how to count, but because mass hysteria needs a mass. Oh, and do you remember the scene with the "mood ring," the protagonist's trinket that can supposedly detect people's moods/energies? At one point he places it on his daughter's finger and tells her that it's turned yellow, which means she's about to laugh. This suggestion, of course, does make her laugh, which proves him right.
See how that works?
This Kind Of Makes It A Brilliant Horror Movie
Look, I get that the acting in The Happening isn't merely amateurish. It's disjointed and haphazard, as if these trained actors have suddenly lost control over both what's coming out of their mouths and how it's coming out. Mark Wahlberg just looks mildly confused the whole time, as if he prepared for the apocalypse by taking several Ambien.
Is Wahlberg delivering what looks like the worst performance of anyone's career, or is he playing a character who's losing his grip on reality? Everyone's behavior is detached and weird to the point of being ridiculous. Kind of in the same way that cult members' behavior looks ridiculous right up until they all put on matching outfits and calmly commit suicide.
Or maybe it's just bad acting. Hey, I said I was going to try to be charitable here.
Regardless, rewatch with this in mind, and you get a much smarter film. From the initial public incident -- mass suicides, on camera, in the world's most famous city -- you see one terrifying explanation spread through the populace: terrorists. Deadly gas. Tapping into all of our post-9/11 anxieties.
Then, as word spreads, so does the irrational behavior. When the reality slowly makes the initial theory implausible (how and why would the terrorists get gas out in the middle of rural Pennsylvania?), the victims simply seize on a new one. It is again patently ridiculous, but again taps into their underlying anxieties, the fear that we're destroying our own planet.
Who first relays the bizarre "THE LEAVES ARE GETTING REVENGE!" theory? Just some guy who works with plants, certainly not an expert in ... whatever this is. But he sounds just smart enough that the group can latch onto the theory that justifies their fear. There are plants everywhere! No one is safe! Just as in real life, they believe the most inflammatory, implausible version of the truth on the thinnest evidence. Because at some level, they -- and we -- want to be afraid.
Even the title becomes meaningful. The Happening is such a weird, vague title for a movie (or, well, anything), but that's the joke. Nothing actually happened.
It's baffling to watch one character after another take their own life for what on the outside is no reason at all. Just as it's impossible to understand why more than 900 people spontaneously did the same at a compound in Guyana. We chuckle at the plot because nothing the characters do makes sense, and damn it, that's not how it's supposed to work in a movie. But in real life, in real crowds? Logic is as fragile as a soap bubble.
The Themes Remain Consistent Right To The End
At the end of the film, Mark Wahlberg and his wife (played by Zooey Deschanel in the most "How did I end up here?" role of her career) survive, and why wouldn't they? They were the main characters. You wouldn't end Black Panther with T'Challa splattered all over the front of one of those underground trains, and you wouldn't end The Happening with Mark Wahlberg choking himself to death on some stale Lucky Charms or whatever.
But look at how they survive. The film ends with the two of them choosing to leave their shelter and embrace in the open air, accepting their fate ... only they're fine. The moment they stop running and hiding, the spell is lifted. They realize that the air isn't poison, and then everyone else does. Suddenly everybody is standing and looking around, like they've woken up from a trance.
This even fits in with Shyamalan's typical storytelling. It ends with the two lead characters putting their faith in their love for each other, rather than succumbing to fear. Likewise, Signs is about a former priest regaining his faith in the face of a mysterious threat, and Unbreakable is about Bruce Willis learning to put faith in his powers. But this is a horror movie, and it isn't going to get a happy ending.
The protagonists don't realize the whole episode was a hysterical shitshow, because real people never learn that lesson. They go home believing that the threat could arise again at any time. And they're right. They're just wrong about the nature of the threat.
Sure enough, the last thing we see is another Happening occurring in France, the process ready to start all over again. Because that is the most horrifying monster of all: the one that lives in our heads, the one that won't ever allow us to learn the right lessons.
Eamon Lahiri has written a bunch of stuff for a bunch of outlets that you can check out on his hastily organized portfolio. To hire him to write things for you, mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or say hi on Twitter.
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