On "The Happening"

I finally got around to watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening the other night – less than a year after it came out, which is pretty good for me. If you plan on watching it, be warned that this post contains spoilers.

I should begin by saying that I have a soft spot for disaster movies: not Towering Inferno-type disaster movies, but “oh-shit-the-world-will-never-be-the-same” disaster movies. I will readily acknowledge that such movies are rarely “good” in the way that most people mean when they talk about “good” movies – with a near-total disregard for that different genres have different standards of “goodness” and that “motion picture” is a medium and not a damned genre – but that’s another issue. Suffice it to say that I was inclined to like this movie, or at least to really want to like it. And, well, I mostly really liked it.

It opens in Central Park, where – all of a sudden – people start losing their shit and killing themselves. A few blocks away, construction workers start throwing themselves off a building like bankers in 1929. It’s a great way to start a movie like this: with something terrible and inexplicable. (Even later, when Shyamalan has provided an explanation (mostly), the scenes of people committing suicide are fairly disturbing; the best one, though, is the scene out in the field where Elliot’s frantic piecing-together of what’s happening is punctuated by off-screen gunshots as folks in the larger group behind them, over a ridge, start offing themselves.)

The movie then cuts to a high school classroom, where Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is discussing Colony Collapse Disorder, which gives us our first handle on what’s happening, at least as far as you can explain one inexplicable event in terms of another, similar inexplicable event. The point we’re supposed to get is that there are forces of nature beyond our understanding (let alone our control), and our attempts to explain them are little more than guesses.

Unfortunately, this kind of movie requires that the threat be at least identifiable, even if it remains inexplicable, and so we learn fairly early on that the mass suicides are the result of an airborne neurotoxin, and, later, that the neurotoxin is being produced by plants. Yes, plants. It’s a goofy premise, I know – and the “ominous” scenes of trees and grasses swaying in the wind nearly ruined it for me. But if you can accept the plants as agents of destruction as necessary, because Nature as a concept is tough to visualize on-screen, then you can get at the idea behind the plants: the idea that Nature might, without warning, cease being our Mother and start weeding us out indiscriminately. That’s kind of a terrifying idea, more terrifying than zombies or asteroids or even nuclear war, because it might actually happen.

Shyamalan described The Happening as a B-movie, but I’m not sure that’s an entirely accurate description. Yes, the dialogue tends to be heavy-handed and expository, and the characters are underdeveloped, and some of the “emotional” moments feel off-key or manipulative (but, then again, some of them are really resonant) – but those things do not a B-movie make. It is, rather, a “movie of ideas” – as are all of Shyamalan’s movies. The plot, the characters, the dialogue – everything is subordinate to the exploration of an idea. I have found most of the ideas driving Shyamalan’s films intriguing and occasionally fascinating, which is why I forgive the awkward dialogue and (generally) flat characters.

The Happening did have one set of scenes that were genuinely terrifying, and a glimpse of what Shyamalan could do if he made a movie just to scare the shit out of people – the scenes beginning with Elliot, Alma, and Jess’ arrival at Mrs. Jones’ cabin, and ending with Mrs. Jones’ suicide the next day. I thought, briefly, that everything that had happened up to that point was an excessively elaborate plot device whose sole purpose was to get them to that cabin, and that the movie was above to take off in a totally different, get-ready-to-shit-your-pants-with-terror direction. It didn’t, and the film’s actual ending – people losing their shit and killing themselves in Paris – is still appropriately ominous, but the “Mrs. Jones’s Cabin” sequence is, I think, the strongest part of the movie, and that old lady almost upstaged the plants.

Alright, she totally upstaged the plants. Plants just aren’t that scary.

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