The Happening (2008): What in the World is Happening?!
M. Night Shyamalan is a name that brings mixed emotions these days. He has been trying to recapture his first film The Sixth Sense for over two decades now to varying degrees of success. With his new film, Knock at the Cabin in theaters, let’s look at one of his worst films, a film which fails on every level that isn’t The Last Airbender. The Happening was panned by everyone upon release and is his low point before his low point in his career. But does it stand the test of ti-(proceeds to burst into laughter while writing). No, no, it’s terrible.
A strange event is occurring, with people suddenly committing suicide en mass for no reason. Believed to be a terrorist attack, the United States goes into panic mode, as this spreads throughout the northwest. High school science teacher Elliot Moore (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (played by Zooey Deschanel) try to flee alongside Elliot’s colleague Julian (played by John Leguizamo) and his daughter. But the situation does not proceed to get any better, as people continue dying around them.
In theory, this film should be terrifying. It has all of the pieces to be terrifying. But the film fails spectacularly at creating horror, for so many reasons. From the moment a character opens their mouth, we get subjected to laughably inhuman dialogue that sounds as awkward as it would look in a script. The acting is just as unnatural and awkward. Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and pretty much every other character in the movie all try way too hard and come off as extremely bizarre. While I understand Wahlberg is supposed to act noticeably panicked over the situation he and his family are in, his worried faces are way too exaggerated and Shyamalan’s signature close-ups don’t make them any less funny. Meanwhile, Zooey Deschanel is almost the polar opposite, appearing wide-eyed and sounding as robotic as possible. How can M. Night Shyamalan suck out the talent of two highly talented actors? It’s almost impossible to even conceive the thought, let alone succeed in doing so! Let’s just hope he doesn’t get his hands on Tom Cruise.
Even without the aforementioned acting and dialogue issues the plot just sucks. The characters aren’t really interesting, with the usually charismatic and talented Mark Wahlberg being borderline boring and even laughable as a high school science teacher. Hell, I don’t even remember anything particular that Zooey Deschanel does as Alma outside of her dead on arrival delivery. The only character that really stood out to me was the old woman whose house they stay at. She was probably the most aggressively hospitable person in existence, letting Elliot and his family stay with her despite being hostile towards them. Throughout her appearances, her paranoia further added to the bizarre and unintentionally comedic tone of the film.
With every Shyamalan film, there has to be some major twist. And with The Happening, it turns out that the plants are causing the mass suicides. This plot point is just dropped onto the audience by a minor character talking about hot dogs, which in a good movie would be a decent misdirect, but here it just falls flat. It honestly is barely even a twist in the movie as the attempt at a misdirect is barely there, or an attempt to make us believe in any other explanation. At least the twist in The Village had foreshadowing, or the twist in Signs…was an actual twist.
Recently, the film has gotten a re-classification as a B-movie, with even Shyamalan and Deschanel having said so. This is understandable considering how the film is too dumb to be taken seriously. And as a B-movie it does better than it does as a horror movie, as it is funny and entertaining in its silliness. But I don’t think that was the intent of the movie. The comedy is unintentional and appears closer to incompetence than parody. Additionally, the acting is genuinely bad, rather than a wink to the camera. Furthermore, the issues that make it a decent B-movie are the very things the Shyamalan has shown before and after to be issues that he has constantly in his movies.
Finally, the suicides are very clearly not meant to be seen as funny, despite how ludicrous some of the deaths are. Every context clue in the film makes it seem like these deaths are supposed to be responded to in horror and they are played very straight in most scenes. Even the absurd deaths like the lion cage or the lawnmower death have this feeling of being genuine as well. Shyamalan for all of his faults, is very genuine in his filmmaking and here it shows to the film’s detriment allowing us to figure out what he is going for while still failing to make anyone feel that way.
The Happening is somehow not Shyamalan’s worst film, that honor would have to go to either The Last Airbender or After Earth. But for any other director this probably would be their worst film. With bad acting, characters and writing, the film fails on every aspect that isn’t basic filmmaking. It can only be enjoyed as a comedy and it seems clear that it wasn’t what the goal was, despite claims to the contrary. There is a noticeable difference between a film that is purposefully bad or campy and a film that is genuinely bad while trying to be competent. And this film feels very similar to Jupiter Ascending, a big budget film that had potential but someone clearly didn’t proofread enough resulting in a large joke on the industry.
Co-written By: Michael Li