The Happening hero

Rewatch: M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening is a better B-movie 10 years later

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Jun 14, 2018

Welcome to Thursday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate in a new context.

So watch out for the sentient greenery! Today our subject is the much-maligned sci-fi thriller The Happening on the day after its 10th anniversary.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening sprouted in U.S. theaters on June 13, 2008, the same day as Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk, and audiences hated it from start to finish. They complained about everything — the scientific ideas being presented were seen as preposterous and the stilted, over-the-top dialogue was cause for unintentional hilarity.

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Part of what led to its controversial reception was it being marketed as a pulse-pounding survival eco-thriller with tough dynamic action and, possibly, a cool, twisty ending. That's not what audiences were served up! Not by any stretch of one's fertile imagination.

What yawning audiences actually got was a semi-cerebral dissection of "Man vs. Nature" in an existential melodrama that was much more thoughtful than it initially revealed. It was a certified flop when it opened that summer but managed to perform well overseas and eventually raked in a worldwide total of $163 million off a $48 million budget.

But, so much as we can glean knowledge through failures as well as triumphs, I was surprised to find that The Happening is a far better Shyamalan entry than I remember — at the very least, I don't detest it now. There's something very comic bookish and old-fashioned about Shyamalan's disconcerting film, a '50s-style B-movie gone horribly astray. Let's revisit.

THE FIRST WATCH

Let's get one thing out of the way right out of the gate: I detested this movie when I first saw it on opening weekend in 2008 after much anticipation.

The "nature gone mad" concept presented in trailers was intriguing to me as I'd just finished a screenplay about intelligent snowflakes and was intrigued to see how Shyamalan managed to convey menace via evil wind, homicidal plants, and ominous grass. At its core, The Happening has a fascinating premise about living plants producing neurotoxins under conditions of great threat, so I was eager to see how it all played out on the big screen.

That was until I actually saw it and exited the theater truly perplexed and disappointed. This was the Academy Award-nominated director's eighth film, sandwiched between 2006's Lady in the Water and 2010's The Last Airbender, both considered extreme low-points in his catalog.

Billed as Shyamalan's first R-rated movie, The Happening revolved around strange atmospheric occurrences that caused people to inexplicably commit suicide. The mashup cast included Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, and Eight is Enough's Betty Buckley as a lemonade-sipping lunatic.

Diabolical breezes and sinister tree rustling was the most I could absorb in this unintentionally comical, head-scratching offering from the guy who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Heck, I'll even give him Signs, which has actually aged very well.

The Happening is also mercilessly short at just under 84 minutes. Alas, it crawled along at a snail's pace without really answering any questions about the invisible perils that were assaulting mankind. Funny? Yes. High art? No.

I first emerged from this crazy, convoluted camp-fest into the invigorating light of day 10 years ago angry, eight bucks poorer, and having just spent 84 minutes of my life on a movie that felt like it had pummeled my now-fatigued brain.

THE OFFICIAL REWATCH

Now, in 2018, the audience for this type of vague paranormal fare has grown exponentially. Transgressive TV shows and feature films are loaded with these types of sophomoric messages disguised as popular entertainment.

Was Shyamalan years ahead of the curve or is this simply still a lame movie? The initial, unsettling idea of an insidious natural order is interesting and must have read well on the page, but the execution of its notions is what failed me upon initial viewing. Nevertheless, I was determined to find something of merit. Anything!

Mark Wahlberg stars as mild-mannered science teacher Elliott Moore, who must safely navigate his way across the state of Pennsylvania with his wife, best friend, and his daughter after a possible terrorist attack causes people to commit mass suicide. The media speculates that it's some mysterious airborne toxin or chemical weapon that is nearly impossible to escape from.

When rewatched with refreshed insight, The Happening now appears to be a slight return to Shyamalan form in the guise of a private meditation on death and suicide, as the director dissects the nature of these concepts on a very provocative (if infantile) level. There is a subtlety to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's carefully framed shots and stirring compositions that are engaging upon repeat viewing and I was shocked to find myself mildly embraced by the stitched-together story line. However, there's a chance this was only my personal hopes of rescuing this stinker from Hollywood oblivion.

Does anything really happen in The Happening? Yes, but it's gonna take a little bit of work to find it. And you may not like what you discover.

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The Happening is still a semi-boring experience wrapped in an enigma. But, yes, it does deserve to be reevaluated in a new, green-tinted light as one of Shyamalan's most misguided, misunderstood projects, with or without lines like, "Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?" Shyamalan's heart was in the right place here but the lack of any cast chemistry and the juvenile storytelling fail to ignite any empathy for anyone. Maybe that's the whole paranoid point.

Is The Happening a huge inside joke about the tired conventions of Hollywood genre flicks, a camouflaged parody intended to be taken lightly, or is it simply a depressing experiment gone terribly wrong that has no real satisfying resolution?

NOTABLE MENTIONS

Plant chat

In perhaps one of the weirdest (and funniest) conversations of Mark Wahlberg's career, the future Transformers star has a touching tete-a-tete with a houseplant. Fearing this fearsome ficus might emit some poisonous, mind-altering spores, Wahlberg shares a moment with the potted plant, speaking in hushed tones so as not to upset the indoor tree. In a film stuffed with incredulous screenwriting, this is simply bizarre.

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Cheating with cough syrup

While trying to respond to an earlier confession that his guilty wife Alma had tiramisu with another man, Wahlberg goes on a lengthy anecdote about his venturing into a drug store and being smitten with the girl behind the cash register.

Making an excuse to talk to her, he feigns having a cough and approaches the countergirl to get her advice on the best brand of cough syrup. The point is to let Zooey Deschanel's character know that her semi-innocent act is not worthy of self-recrimination but it comes across as a painfully jarring sequence, especially when paired with Deschanel's large blue eyes.

Do you like hot dogs?

For some odd reason, Frank Collison's nursery worker has a real appetite for hot dogs and begins a long explanation of the unhealthy mystery meat in the middle of this eco-crisis, even polling the group to see who enjoys them and who does not.

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THE TAKE AWAY

The Happening contains some genuinely moving sequences, gruesome slaughter, a few intimate moments that truly resonate, and some laugh-out-loud scenes that defy explanation (see: a confused man is being eaten by hungry lions).

While it's overacted in many spots and completely bonkers in others, it's a fascinating mix of eco-didacticism, post 9/11 trauma, spaced-out Zooey Deschanel, Cabbage Patch doll jokes, mood rings, math riddles, hot dog love, and silly, unsophisticated screenwriting based on shaky pseudo-science.

Somewhere in The Happening, there is a brilliant core, but it's too muddled in cinematic dementia to matter, even with a renewed perspective. It remains a curious oddity marked with a "you gotta see it to believe it" quality. Come to think of it, that may be The Happening's finest attribute.

But with all its faults, The Happening remains addictively watchable on many alarming levels. It feels like the most expensive student film ever made. Why did the flora of Earth turn against us? Perhaps to prevent our species from creating more feature films that cause extreme anxiety, irritability, and frustration.