M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller The Happening was released into cinemas worldwide in 2008. It came as another step in a decade-long journey of diminishing returns: The Sixth Sense (1999) had been a global sensation, Unbreakable (2000) slightly less so, and then audience response seem to turn sour from Signs (2002) to The Village (2004), and finally Lady in the Water (2006). At the time The Happening was actively mocked by audiences and critics alike, and appeared to kill Shyamalan’s reputation stone-dead. Thankfully for him, his career has since undergone a small renaissance through films like Split (2016) and Old (2021), but looking back on it The Happening remains fairly close to a career nadir.
This is not a review as such; I am treating it more like an autopsy. The Happening is not some underrated gem or diamond in the rough. Both audiences and critics got it right the first time: this is a staggeringly weak film, made all the more galling in coming from a writer-director whose other works – The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000) in particular – demonstrate some remarkable storytelling skills. How did this particular work turn out so badly?
The Happening sees married couple Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel) become caught up in an ecological disaster across America’s eastern seaboard, as an unknown phenomenon begins to inspire mass suicide events. They flee into the countryside, but the effects appear to be expanding around them.
As a concept for a story, The Happening is actually on pretty promising ground. Damage to the environment has triggered a reaction in plant life to excrete some unknown toxin into the atmosphere. That toxin controls human beings and inspires them to spontaneously kill themselves. It’s a clever idea because plant life is all around nearly all of the time, and because the idea of uncontrollably killing oneself is a nightmarish idea that should generate great moments of screen horror.
The first mistake: Shyamalan introduces the ecological apocalypse before he introduces his lead characters. The film opens at a breakneck pace, aiming for shock value in people jumping en-masse off buildings, shooting themselves in the head, and throwing themselves into traffic. The strength of all of Shyamalan’s earlier films was the slow build: the growing unease through which he could introduce and define his protagonists. In The Happening everything kicks off so fast and hard that not only do we fail to properly meet the characters, the majority of dramatic potential in the premise is wasted.
Here is the second mistake: the characters do not work out what is going on by themselves. A rural market gardener (Frank Collison) explains that plants can talk to other plants, and that they are likely behind the disaster. Throughout the film more details are filled in by radio and television news reports. A key part of the film’s dénouement is literally a scientist explaining the plot via a short monologue.
This contributes towards a significant problem with Eliot and Alma: they are effectively passengers in their own story. They get out of town, and they run into the fields of West Virginia, but at no point do they work out what is happening by themselves, at no point do they save other people, and in the climax they passively survive for no readily discernable reason. Given they are not even well established characters are the start, it really does leave the audience with nobody about whom they can actually care. Both characters are also weirdly miscast: Mark Wahlberg does not convince as a high school science teacher – although he does have a gift for the deadpan joke – while Zooey Deschanel’s wide-eyed performance style does not work anywhere near as well in drama as it does for her in comedy.
The trees killing humanity is a difficult premise to express in a film. It is difficult to explain without the open exposition to which Shyamalan resorts. It is difficult to visualise as well: there are attempts here with branches and grasses blowing in the wind, and the sound of the breeze, but at the end of the day plants are essentially inanimate objects. They do not work in inspiring a sense of horror or dread.
One would think that might be okay: the various suicides can do the horrific job in lieu of the planets. Weirdly Shyamalan sabotages his own film in the overly forced manner in which the suicides play out. Within minutes of the film starting the audience is witness to multiple people leaping from rooftops to their deaths, after which there is no scope to build on the sense of terror. Attempts to present elaborate and gory deaths – one man turns on his lawnmower, lies down in front of its path, and lets himself get shredded – feel more laughable than suspenseful. The entire concept is that a victim will spontaneously kill themselves in the most immediate ways – the more elaborate the death the less frightening it becomes. One scene midway through the film should be a masterstroke in horror: we can hear one group of survivors beyond a hill lose control and start shooting themselves one by one with the same gun. In the other group Eliot effectively has an emotional meltdown as he tries to work out how to help with several people around him begging him to do something. It should be a harrowing sequence, but Shyamalan short-circuits it by featuring a string of suicides with a handgun right at the beginning of the film. Nothing here escalates – instead The Happening expends its potential immediately and then crawls on for another 90 minutes.
I rewatched the film hoping that the global pandemic of 2020 would have somehow given it a newfound relevance: a natural phenomenon that forces people to isolate from one another, and the paranoia of fearing a killer than cannot be soon or stopped. Sadly the film still is as weakly developed as I had remembered. It is still so strange that a filmmaker with a proven capacity for such exceptional filmmaking as The Sixth Sense could make something as properly terrible as The Happening. It beggars belief.