The Happening

Movie Information

The Story: An unknown force or disease or virus is causing mass suicides. Can a humble science teacher learn the cause and save himself and his rapidly diminishing charges? The Lowdown: A silly thriller with uninteresting characters -- who in real life might qualify for Darwin Awards -- and a preposterous plot.
Genre: Ecological Horror
Director: M. Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, Ashlyn Sanchez
Rated: R

As one of the three or four people who will admit to actually liking M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water (2006), I was hoping that his The Happening (alas, not a remake of the hipper-than-thou 1967 film of that title) might be better than everything indicated. The trailer for the film was awful, and the rumors (which proved to be true) concerning the story line were worse. Plus, the attempt by 20th Century Fox to tantalize the viewer with the fact that this was Shyamalan’s “first R-rated movie” smacked of desperation. However, after seeing the film, it must be said that it lives up—or down—to the prerelease indications and then some. At the same time, I have to say I liked it better than The Village (2004), but then I’d find just about anything short of cholera preferable to that film.

The Happening is one of those movies that’s impossible to discuss with any degree of depth without getting into the plot. So I’ll warn the reader now that I will be trading in the realm of spoilers here as concerns what the movie is about—something the advertising has tried to keep secret. And no, I won’t be revealing the famous “Shyamalan twist,” since The Happening eschews that trademark—unless the film’s utterly predictable coda can be said to qualify. My own feeling is that the story was kept a secret in order to prevent potential viewers from saying, “Well, that’s dumb.” And while it’s not good critic-speak, I’d agree. This is a dumb story populated with dumb ideas, dumb dialogue and dumber characters.

The movie starts off with people in New York City suddenly becoming disoriented. They walk backwards, stand still and ultimately kill themselves. This, by the way, is where the much-touted R rating kicks in, though the people who have called the film unrelentingly gory obviously don’t get out much. Compared to the work of David Cronenberg or Martin Scorsese, this is dime-store stuff; carnage for the easily shocked. Worse, the material quickly loses its edge to such a degree that the killings become less shocking than they are silly.

So what is causing the disorientation? Believe it or not, it’s plants. Somehow or other—there’s some folderol about the plants unleashing neurotoxins—the whispering grass tells the trees to cause the planet-destroying bipeds to off themselves. Just how this virulently antisocial flora manages to convince the wind to carry its neurotoxins in specific directions is never addressed. But then the film never bothers to wonder why the plants would opt for such an absurdly convoluted and theatrical approach to killing off humans in the first place, nor how any of this ties in to the erosion of the honey-bee population, the disappearance of which the film insists spells our impending doom. (The script even makes up a “quote” from Einstein to prove it.) Are the plants killing off the bees, too? One would presume these leafy boys would be kindly disposed toward an insect so intrinsic to their sex lives and propagation. Shyamalan doesn’t tell us the answer. Perhaps the bees are hiding out in Argentina till it’s over.

In essence, what you end up with is a cross between Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Shyamalan’s Signs (2002). This movie not only boasts a variation on Tomorrow‘s ecological apocalypse, but it challenges that film’s most ridiculous idea—outrunning the cold—by coming up with people outrunning the wind. The approach to it all is Shyamalan’s typical small group of family members (and extended family) up against the end of the world—just like in Signs, only funnier.

The Happening rarely makes any sense—even on the simplest level. How, for instance, does someone crash through the windshield of a car after flying over Leguizamo? Yeah, he’s not all that tall, but unless he’s still playing Toulouse-Lautrec from Moulin Rouge (2001), I’m not buying it. And the movie’s “three months later” ending is purely preposterous.

The acting is also abysmally bad, but no one could go best two falls out of three with Shyamalan’s dialogue and win. The usually reliable Mark Wahlberg (“Be scientific, douchebag!”) looks downright embarrassed as the world’s dumbest science teacher. Zooey Deschanel plays the entire film with a look of surprise that suggests someone smacked her in the face with a board just prior to every take. John Leguizamo is, well, John Leguizamo. The rest of the cast is just amateurish, except for Betty Buckley, and her performance only works because it’s impossible to overact the character she’s been handed.

There are flashes of creativity. The entire sequence with Betty Buckley is at the very least agreeably odd. And the business with the speaking tube is a nice touch—though it would be better if the dialogue sounded even vaguely natural, but Shyamalan’s tin ear killed that. In the main, the greatest value of The Happening lies in its great supply of unintentional mirth. Rated R for violent and disturbing images.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “The Happening

  1. Dionysis

    Well, the television trailer made it seem intriguing. Your review, coupled with a recent one I read on Rotten Tomatoes, keeps me from wasting the price of admission.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I suspect that’s a sound choice, though the film does have its supporters — including Ebert, and I understand where he’s coming from (though I don’t understand his assessment of the performances!) It isn’t a film I’d call devoid of merit, but its merits seem very minor to me.

  3. Bambi

    I found the trailer very funny. “There seems to be an event happening” is a hilarious line! Except the fact that these laughs were sandwiched between moments of horrific gravity made me feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs. If anything it alerted me to how certain timeworn cinematic cues so easily trigger specific emotions. That Shyamalan can evoke these moods indicates that he has some skill. But the fact that he can’t seem to discern between these various moods strikes me as odd.

    He seems most comfortable in Sixth Sense mode: slow and portentous. I didn’t appreciate this pacing applied to a superhero story in Unbreakable and I really got mad when Signs tempted me to the box office with the prospect of an alien invasion and then likewise plodded along with the same colorless, funeral procession sensibility.

    The Village I actually enjoyed for its aesthetic, except that my sister had already seen it and warned me thus: “I won’t tell you the end, but just think of the dumbest way it could end, and you’ll be right.” So I spent three quarters of the movie thinking “No, it couldn’t be THAT dumb!” Only to have my suspicions confirmed.
    I won’t even go into Lady in the Water.

    Why do studio executives keep giving this man money? Primer was an amazing, haunting, taut science fiction thriller– I wish Shane Carruth could get the kind of breaks Shyamalan does!

  4. Ken Hanke

    They keep giving him money because THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS made money. Actually, by the time you factor in the world market and DVD sales, I think the only actual loser at the box office was LADY IN THE WATER.

  5. “Why do studio executives keep giving this man money? Primer was an amazing, haunting, taut science fiction thriller– I wish Shane Carruth could get the kind of breaks Shyamalan does!”

    There was probably a better profit ratio with PRIMER … it was only made for $7,000!

    Unfortunately, THE HAPPENING opened much better than expected, even beating THE HULK overseas. So unless the film absolutely bottoms out this weekend, Shamalamadingdong will be with us for awhile.

    Count me as one that like LADY IN THE WATER, though!

  6. Ken Hanke

    The whole box office business has been weird — even eccentric — of late, starting with the SEX AND THE CITY upset. THE HAPPENING wasn’t supposed to do the money it did, and there was a day this past week where there was a shift to heavy INDY attendance.

    I’m not sure this is a bad thing. I think it’s good for the prognosticators to be wrong.

  7. “The whole box office business has been weird—even eccentric—of late, starting with the SEX AND THE CITY upset. THE HAPPENING wasn’t supposed to do the money it did, and there was a day this past week where there was a shift to heavy INDY attendance.”

    I’m surprised that anyone is surprised on how popular SEX AND THE CITY is. Maybe it’s because I’m renting the dvds over and over for five years now.

    What’s surprising to me is that pretty much every summer film has made money this season. Fortunately, the one film that I wanted to bomb has, and I can’t wait to see the review tomorrow.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I’m surprised that anyone is surprised on how popular SEX AND THE CITY is. Maybe it’s because I’m renting the dvds over and over for five years now.

    Maybe, but there’s not always a correlation between what people will rent and what they’ll go see in a theater. I think that’s what surprises people. Well, that and the fact that conventional wisdom had it that Crystal Skull was unbeatable — especially by a film that had a perceived niche market.

    Fortunately, the one film that I wanted to bomb has, and I can’t wait to see the review tomorrow.

    I ought to taunt you and say that Justin found it a rib-tickling delight, but I won’t. Myself, I left the state in order to not see it. (Of course, this does saddle me with The House Bunny.)

  9. Chad Nesbitt

    Not as disapointing as the Crystal Skull but it reminded me of Cloverfield. I was left with a whole lot of questions. Writters and Directors like Abrams and Shamalon and Hollywood in general are going to have to realize that people pay alot of money to see movies now days. We don’t like to sit there watching the credits wondering what the heck just happened. Leaving a movie theater mad is not good.

    Chad Nesbitt

  10. Natasha

    I may be the only person on earth to say it, but I liked it. I especially liked it better than Signs. (Y’all can travel across the galaxy but our primitive doorknobs throw you off?!?! And you can’t learn from observation?!) Yes, I left with questions. And yes it could have been improved. But still, compared to the deluge of summer garbage that’s been out there, it was pretty good. (For the record, I enjoyed Lady in the Water.)

  11. irelephant

    Just watched this. Felt the need to chime in, albeit a bit on the late side. The Happening was painful, but somehow I couldn’t stop the DVD, nor run and hide. I felt I had to keep watching it. Along with The Village and Signs, Shama-what’s-his-face has created a fine trilogy of god awfulness. That in itself deserves some sort of notice.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I certainly won’t make a case that it’s any good, but I do find The Happening impossible to hate. It always reminds me of Glenda Farrell’s sympathetic description Gavin Gordon in Mystery of the Wax Museum as “kinda scared, dumb and worthless,” and I feel sorry for it.

  13. irelephant

    I enjoyed The Sixth Sense, though I haven’t seen it since it was first released. But I genuinely liked Unbreakable and Lady in the Water, each have parts that I think are brilliant. I imagine that Shama-guy might be a good filmmaker if he had a better writer.

    < “kinda scared, dumb and worthless,” and I feel sorry for it.>

    I like this–It makes me think of some brilliant artist who got sent to an insane asylum and lobotomized.

  14. Ken Hanke

    I liked Unbreakable when I first saw it. I haven’t seen it again, so I can’t say how I’d feel about it now. On the other hand, for all its faults, I do like Lady in the Water.

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