Synopsis: In this heart-pounding apocalyptic thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, the writer-director of The Sixth Sense and Signs, an unstoppable event threatens the world’s population by attacking the most basic human instinct of all – survival. Academy Award Nominee Mark Wahlberg (2006 Best Supporting Actor, The Departed) stars as Elliot Moore, an ordinary man trying to save his family from a terrifying, invisible killer. As Elliot discovers the incredible possibility of what is happening, it is clear that no one – and nowhere – is safe.
The Happening 6.5
eyelights: the core concept.
eyesores: the awkward environmentalist messaging. the across-the-board horrible performances. the weak construction. the gratuitous violence.
“Can this really be happening?”
I make no bones about it: I’m a fan of M. Night Shyamalan. Although he’s received incessant flack for over a decade now, I frequently tend to come to his defence. Perhaps a part of me likes an underdog (Heck, I know that if everyone raved about him, I might take a more moderate position).
I just think that he’s unjustly being pilloried.
Perhaps it’s a question of expectations and/or of a perception that he’s squandered his talent, but people keep saying that ‘The Sixth Sense’ is his greatest work and that’s it’s all been downhill from there. While I’ll admit that he’s been inconsistent, I think his oeuvre is greater than most filmmakers’.
And then there is ‘The Happening’.
Released in 2008, and starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, the picture mixes the urgency of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ with the paranoia of a post-9/11 North America. Think ‘Outbreak’ crossed with ‘Day of the Triffids’ and you get the general idea of what ‘The Happening’ is like.
Unsurprisingly, it got skewered by critics and remains one of Shyamalan’s worst-rated films to this day (bested only by ‘After Earth’ and ‘The Last Airbender’, depending on which reviews one consults) – despite having done respectable business at the box office and on home video.
For me the first issue was Marky Mark. I know I shouldn’t call Wahlberg that, but he’ll always be Marky Mark to me; I just don’t think of him as an actor. I haven’t seen most of his movies, but every time I see him on screen, I could do without him (‘The Big Hit‘ being a huge exception!).
So I avoided ‘The Happening’ until it came out on home video, and paid very little attention to it even then. The only reason I even got it was because I was buying and reselling a bunch of DVDs and had a credit in one store – and it was one of the more attractive titles they had.
I picked it up, and watched it without knowing anything about it.
And you know what? I really like the basic idea that nature is designed to adapt and eradicate that which is a threat to itself. But it was done in such a hackneyed way that it was only outdone by ‘Birdemic‘ (In fact, for me, ‘The Happening’ rests somewhere between ‘The Birds‘ and ‘Birdemic’).
One of the key factors is the cast. Honestly, as a whole, they are f-ing horrible. Stunningly bad, even. And if there’s a movie that needed solid gravitas, it’s this one. Instead, we got a bunch of half-hearted, if not risible, performances – few of which were even remotely credible. Or watchable.
- Look, I don’t want to harp on the guy, but… Marky Mark as a science class professor? Puhlease! I mean… he ends half of his statements in questions! I mean… he ends half of his statements in questions? He reportedly only took the role because it was a departure from playing crooks or cops. Obviously, he was out of his depth.
- Man, Zooey Deschanel is fun because she usually plays offbeat characters. Or makes them offbeat. But she often seems a bit dazed. Here, she was performing as though she were in a sitcom. It was absolutely terrible. Thank goodness she made up for it in ‘500 Days of Summer‘.
- Ashlyn Sanchez earned great reviews for her turn in ‘Crash’, but you wouldn’t know it here, as a girl that Marky Mark and Zooey’s characters become the guardians of. She isn’t all bad, but she’s isn’t great at all. Of course, in this bunch… well, she came off as average. She hasn’t done anything since.
- I never understood the appeal of John Leguizamo as a comedian, and I don’t get him as a straight actor either. But, because of the quality of the rest of the cast, he seems okay on the whole.
- Frank Collison plays a farmer/nursery owner who suggests that the plants are at the root (ha!) of the crisis. Except that he has only two modes: googly-eyed and slack-jawed. And often both at once.
- Betty Buckley plays a woman who lets our protagonists into her home at the end. She overacts like crazy, shouting each and every line. It was so annoying and unrealistic; I just sat there wondering what her damned problem was.
And that’s before we even get around to the script and direction!
The picture is rife with all sorts of absurd or poorly thought-out moments, either written or interpreted by Shyamalan. It’s so sloppy that I can’t even begin to make a comprehensive list here; I mean, it’s difficult enough to suspend one’s disbelief just to accept the basic premise…
Still, here are a couple of significant examples:
- After everyone takes the train to leave New York, they are dropped off at a station in Filton/Filbert (?) because the train’s crew have lost all contact with the outside world – so the passengers wind up in a small local diner. When they discover that danger is nearing and that they need to get out of town, they all scramble out. But only a dozen cars leave the diner – which is fully packed with a whole train full of passengers, plus a few locals. Since the only cars there had to be local ones, not everyone could have fit in the few of them that were there. So where did all the people go?
- As Leguizamo’s car comes through a town, we realize that the local arborists have hung themselves up in the trees and are hanging above the street. Except that the woman in the back seat only screams after we see the suicides, as though she hadn’t noticed as they drove up to it. And yet they’re right there, for all to see!!! It’s such a poor directorial choice: she should have screamed as they drove up, before we saw it ourselves. As it is, this scene is totally neutered.
- At some point, the nursery owner told everyone that it’s been scientifically proven that plants are responsive to human speech and contact. And so we end up with a scene in which Marky Mark starts talking to a potted plant in a “we come in peace” moment. Was it meant to be a joke? Or was it supposed to be a sign that he was losing it. Hard to know. At that point I wondered if Shyamalan was the one losing it.
- The epilogue takes place three months later, and life seems to be back to normal again. Now, admittedly, the so-called “happening” only affected the east coast of the United States – but how can there be so many people left after a slaughter on such a grand scale? I mean, people were committing suicide in groups everywhere, for goodness’ sake! It sounded like there were few people left. But here you have it, life as though nothing’s happened…
- Speaking of which, we come to realize that the “happening” took place over the course of just 24 hours. Wow… it seemed pretty chaotic for a one-day thing! I mean, clearly we didn’t see many nights go by but, given the scale of the massacre, it seemed to me like it must have been more than just a day. Nope.
And then there are technical issues, like the crappy CGI. For example:
- In the beginning, as the “happening” begins, construction workers jump to their doom from atop a highrise. It looked like crap, like they were just bean bags being tossed off the roof. But at least the collision with the pavement seemed realistic.
- At one point, people are watching a viral video of a guy in a lion’s cage at the zoo. His arms get torn off and I looks so bad that you’d think they had their CGI done by the same crew as for ‘Birdemic’. Not that arms tear off that way anyhow – it looked like they slid off, like pulled-pork.
To make matters worse, the violence was gratuitous: Shyamalan kept showing us the outcome of various deaths even though we knew what was about to happen. It’s like he was getting a thrill out of showing us what awaited “evil” human beings, as though it were karmic retribution.
But it was totally unnecessary.
Frankly, the only really stunning moment of the picture is the car crash that Leguizamo’s character is in.
He and other survivors are driving around a contaminated area. The car slows down, stops, and then starts speeding up until the driver smashes it into a tree. It’s creepy because we watch it from a distance, as bystanders, and because it’s so simple and deliberate.
And then Leguizamo comes out.
He seems stunned from the crash, and sits down on the street; we think he may be in shock. But no, he’s also infected and he grabs a piece of glass on the ground to slash at his wrists with. Yikes. In a rare instance in ‘The Happening’, we don’t see him do it; we see him preparing to. Eek.
It’s a mental image I’ve never forgotten, even after everything else in the film has faded.
Except that it’s obviously not enough to offset the lack of subtlety and outright cheesiness in the rest of the picture – in messaging, performance and directing. One can’t help but feel that it’s an intriguing premise done wrong, that it could have been so much better.
Date of viewing: September 22, 2015