Colin Browne is still confused about what happened in The Happening, but do you really need to understand something to enjoy it?
You’ve probably heard them all by now: The Not Much Happening, The What’s Happening? And, true, M. Night Shyamalan’s unmistakably slow-paced critique of human civilization, The Happening does take its sweet time going nowhere, but things are not as bad as critics are making them out to be. For fans of the director’s previous work (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) the psychological elements are still in place, but what begins to show through is Shyamalan’s self-effacing humour.
First, a point of clarification: this is not a horror movie. Nor is it a comedy or strict drama. In fact, almost everything about this film is left undefined. Unlike the downright petrifying An Inconvenient Truth, which laid its position bare, The Happening doesn’t have the pie charts and Al Gore guiding you
Here’s the idea: Mark Wahlberg’s character Elliott is a science teacher who wants nothing more than to spend time with his new wife Alma (played by the unstoppably gorgeous Zooey Deschanel). When largely populated sections of the Northeastern United States are attacked by an airborne toxic enemy, humans begin committing random, inexplicable acts of suicide (jumping off buildings, lying down in front of unmanned lawnmowers) which means the only option for the young couple is to head for the countryside with a completely inconsequential little girl and the rest of the surviving populous in tow. The film makes a point of directing blame away from bio-terrorism, while identifying a couple of possible explanations as to who or what is behind this ingenious ploy: the government, or …plants?
How can a plant pose an offensive? Good question.
A few explanations are offered, and there’s a comparison to the recent mass disappearance of honeybees brought in as reminder that what happens to one species in reality could happen to another in fiction. Throw in some talk about neurotoxins, and you’ve got what could be a fairly balanced psycho-political thriller. Unfortunately, little is offered in the way of insight, plausibility, or opinion, making for a lot of missed opportunity. Oh well.
Much like John Carpenter’s classic The Fog, most of The Happening’s effective tension comes from the mystery of an invisible enemy, which, in Shyamalan’s film at least, could be interpreted as a metaphor for terrorism. But the film sidesteps this idea too. It’s as if Shyamalan is unwilling to deal with the confrontation.
Other possibilities—like CIA involvement, or people possibly controlling the plants—are touched upon but equally dismissed, leaving us with the slow realization that yeah, the plants are pissed, so you guys better keep running away from those plants, which leads to an audience reaction of go, plants, go! …which may not be enough to satisfy viewers expecting psychic children, aliens, or creepy woodspeople.
So, what’s the good news? This is a fun movie.
A lot of weird, goofy stuff happens, including an hilarious scene involving Mark Wahlberg’s earnest appeal to a potted plant. Much of the dialogue has an over-the-top urgency to it—“Oh, it’s the military, we’re saved!”—which seems at once intentional and essential to keeping the plot moving—but it does add a nice absurdist element to the film. There are a few eerily tense moments here and there, and the initial idea, while not fully developed, is an intriguing idea which might not be all that improbable. Who knows?
Does that mean I’m suggesting your ferns will swallow you up at night? Well, I can’t speak for your ferns, but if you watch the film and are still confused about what actually happens in The Happening, allow me to paraphrase from a young lady sitting near me, which I think sums it all up pretty well:
“Oh snap, it’s dead people!”
The Happening is now in theatres. Call for showtimes and prices.