Say Something Nice: THE HAPPENING (2008)

M. Night Shyamalan’s most loathed film is radder than you think it is.

Look, I know you don’t like The Happening, but here’s the thing: I do, and I’m going to tell you why.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 film, Mark Wahlberg stars as science teacher Elliott Moore, who finds himself reeling when people start committing mass suicide as the result of a suspected biochemical terrorist attack. There’s no warning when it hits, no way to shelter yourself from it, and it makes people jump off buildings and lay in front of lawnmowers, among other unsettling methods.

The biggest problem with the film lies not in its concept, not in its ending, but in its audience disconnect. This was marketed as a “Shyamalan is back, baby!” return-to-form, starring the same Mark Wahlberg who was and is known as the bewildered action star in every role he plays. If we’re being real here, Wahlberg is entertaining but lately, his films have been on the more digestible end of the cinematic spectrum. You’re not going to see him waxing poetic in an Aronofsky film; he’s here to settle scores and save ‘Murica. The trailer utilized horrifying post-9/11 imagery of people falling to their deaths from rooftops, intercut with groups of families fleeing from an unseen threat. The posters promised a “nail-bitingly ferocious thriller” and the casting of Wahlberg fortified the idea of The Happening as an accessible, survivalist end-of-days thriller.  

What audiences got was…not that.

Not only does Action Jackson Wahlberg play the role of a mousy schoolteacher (still rocking his favorite bewildered expression, though) whose role in the plot is largely passive, but the film itself has an unorthodox pacing from sci-fi thrillers in its out-of-the-gate shock-and-awe mayhem that slows to an existential simmer in the third act. Anyone expecting Shooter Does A Horror Movie would naturally be underwhelmed to get through the 91-minute runtime to find out that the Happening…was vengeful greenery.

Vengeful greenery was happening.

Turns out that all of the plants on Earth collectively got tired of man’s shenanigans and decided to cull the herd by emitting a toxin that makes people kill themselves by whatever means necessary.

For a mainstream, wide-release film, The Happening is ballsy in its commitment to experimentation. Rather than transcend, it recalibrates genre limitations to defy expectations. Shyamalan has clearly watched his fair share of disastersploitation, and is well aware of the requisite tropes. The Happening is his inversion of those elements. The film operates in a reverse pacing, starting with cataclysmic pandemonium and slowing down to a light jog as the protagonists are required to split off into smaller numbers. The dialogue is lighter, the shots linger longer, and the silence is more pronounced with every scene.

To expand on the increasing simplicity, The Happening does the same subversion of expectations in its plot. Whereas most apocalyptic sci-fi films have their characters attempting to reach the nearest city, Shyamalan defiantly steers Elliott and his Funky Bunch toward areas on the map with less population density, fueled by the function of the Vengeful Trees toxin that affects humans in large groups. It’s a pretty neat plot device; its early infusion into the story pulls the rug out from under those expecting the Big Twist. Sure, the Vengeful Greenery was obscured by misleading shots of smokestacks and other red herrings, but the true threat was there all along. I can appreciate that structural audacity on Shyamalan’s part.

Conceptually, ya boi M. Night went into throwback mode for this movie. Shyamalan is far from the first filmmaker to slip existentialist horror into a corny B-movie premise; this was de rigueur for Atomic Age-era sci-fi. Defending this movie requires a little bit of contextualization within cinematic history. The post-WWII period saw a cultural upheaval that ran well into the 1950s and this was reflected in film. Everything from old-school werewolves and vampires to Toho’s gargantuan creatures got a new blood infusion of everything that Western society feared, from incredible leaps in science to a mounting space/arms race with Russia. Sure, The Fly is about some nerd who accidentally turns himself into an actual fly, but the subtext is a warning about playing God in the laboratory. “Drive-in feminism” reached the moviegoing public with cheesy greats like The Wasp Woman and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

In the same way that Gojira distilled fears of nuclear war through a Lovecraftian lens of amoral kaiju, so does Shyamalan process cultural anxieties on both climate change and post-millennial terrorism through the constructs of mystery-thrillers. Nothing agonizes us like randomness. We like to think that life has meaning and our existence serves a purpose, and The Happening puts its finger on that pulse and applies pressure until we’re numb. Not only that, but he gives it his own stamp by intersecting that horror with everyday life in rural Pennsylania. We’ve seen this jarring juxtaposition in Signs, The Sixth Sense, and even in films he’s produced like Devil. Folks may not like the concept, they may not like the acting, they may not like the bizarre dialogue (”Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?”), but it’s clear that Shyamalan had both purpose and ambition in this multi-layered homage to 1950s drive-in fare. In this regard, I can really dig what he dishes out in this 2008 non-mystery.

I still can’t defend that scene where Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic plant, though. I’ve got nothing, there.

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