The Happening (2008)

The Happening
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Released:  Friday, June 13, 2008  
Length:  91 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Studios
Genre: Drama, Horror
Rating: The Happening is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of AmericaUnder 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.


It begins with no clear warning. In a matter of minutes, episodes of strange, chilling deaths erupt in major American cities. For Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) what matters most is finding a way to escape the mysterious and deadly phenomenon. Though he and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) are in the midst of a marital crisis, they hit the road, first by train, then by car, with Elliot's math teacher friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his 8 year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), heading for the Pennsylvania farmlands where they hope they'll be out of reach of the grisly, ever-growing attacks. Yet it soon becomes clear that no one - and nowhere - is safe. This terrifying, invisible killer cannot be outrun. It is only when Elliot begins to discover the true nature of what is lurking out there that he discovers a sliver of hope that his fragile family might be able to escape what is happening.

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The Happening Theatrical Review

It's no surprise that M. Night makes challenging movies--exactly who they challenge, though, is a matter of some opinion. The consensus seems to be that they challenge audiences on a mass scale to think they got their money's worth. I believe this is wrong. Whatever else he is--and however the final production values of The Happening may look, I think he's a gifted director. His writing is quirky. His sense of an ending is highly divergent from what most of us would probably expect. He tells grim, almost bleached out stories with somber music and emotion that, in the end interleave sadness and hope.

Oh, and most people will tell you they suck.

In The Happening something is, um, occurring in the American north east: people are dying! Worse, they are killing themselves--suicide orchestrated by some kind of airborne neurotoxin. Our heroes, Marky Mark (Mark Wahlberg playing high school science teacher Elliot Moore) and Zooey Deschanel (somewhat estranged wife Alma Moore) are caught in Philadelphia (capital city of the Shyamalan-verse) when the effect spreads. They need to get to safety.

The movie begins by invoking vanishing bees--a real life crisis that does, indeed, baffle scientists as well as mass die-offs of fish and resurgence of dangerous bacteria near Australia. Clearly something is ... going on ... and it ain't good. This back-drop along with an ominous score, gloomy city-scenes, and a few outright shocking visuals (the people plunging off the roof of a construction site) set the stage for the apocalypse. M. Night has compared it to The Birds and, I think, although you're never supposed to compare your own stuff to a masterpiece (although you are never supposed to cast yourself in the movie as a world-saving martyr-to-be--and he did in The Lady In The Water) there are some reasonable comparisons. Both had people facing grim, inexplicable disasters of a dubiously "natural origin."

Both were, in a way, themes of judgment.

Unfortunately, M. Night manages to make his video lecture on the coming eco-collapse less intriguing than Al Gore's Powerpoint. This, folks, is a real problem. The movie opens as these do (see Day After Tomorrow or any zombie movie) by establishing the apocalypse. Then it moves to the necessary survival phase. In this case the characters are on the run, looking for a place where The Happening isn't in effect.

M. Night shines in the first part. There are a few small touches that work well. The guy using his blackberry to text to his wife because they cannot hear in the panicked commotion on the train is in insight less banal--but equally convincing to the bathroom lines in the diner where a bunch of people disrupted in transit wind up. There's a chilling part where a woman gets her daughter on the phone in a town where "everyone is dead outside" and then listens as she too succumbs to The Happening (she gets, as one blog put it, "happened.")

The next phase, however, is the long-haul part and this is inevitably where movies succeed or fail. There are survivors and Bad Things Must ... Befall .. Them. In this case, the Bad Thing comes in what may be the cheapest monster effect ever put to film: wind in the grass. There is even a "running from the wind" scene which recalled the "running from the super-freezing air scene" in Day After Tomorrow. M. Night is better than this--but I expect given his operating constraints (and I mean plot-wise, not budget) there is simply nothing better he could do. Well there is: there's another staple of this part which is Man's Inhumanity To Man. The Happening does not play this card heavily--but it does play it--and it points out why it has to be carefully managed.

We all know that when the lights go out after about six hours we will immediately kill our neighbors for food and then feel awfully silly when (a) they don't have any--just like we didn't--and (b) the lights come back on shortly there after. In The Happening there is, in fact, an unnecessary killing scene promoted to Truly Awful by a Mark Wahlberg sings-a-song episode to prove he's not infected. I sat there thinking: they might shoot him for that alone--not just because it is cringe inducing cinema but because it makes no sense in the movie (also, unlike zombies, the infected are not dangerous to anyone but themselves).

Overall the end of the show leaves the characters fairly plodding along through weeds and bushes which might, at any time, judge them and kill them. Ominous music plays and wind blows in the trees--and they find abandoned or mostly abandoned houses and we tell ourselves: get to the end so we'll know if they'll survive or not. At this point only one question is left to be answered: what kind of movie is it (full apocalypse ... or near apocalypse).

That answer, eventually, does not exactly come as the film leaves some questions pretty unresolved. I don't know that I'm spoiling an M. Night movie by saying that it's ending is maybe not all people could ask for--I think that's part of what you pay for when you buy the ticket.

I think that ultimately, the problem is that all of these movies hinge on metaphor and the depth of it. In this case, the message is: what we are doing to the environment is killing us: see? We are literally killing ourselves! Rather than earth dying, it judges us--the plants act in self defense--and we are slaughtered like the animals we are. Unfortunately, beyond this metaphor there is no actual story. None of the characters in the movie really inhabit the world of eco-anything. The built-up areas are possibly less dangerous than the fields (although that does not really play out). The movement of the plants (wind which presumably carries the toxin) gives them agency and the rough time line of the movie suggests that they, in fact, punish some people and let others live--but this is clunky: while nothing in the movie is accidental, it also does not play together to any theme (the love-story has thematic weight, it seems, including arranging a way for people to talk to each other separated by a field of deadly plants, but it makes no sense in the film's contextual metaphor).

In short, it isn't so much that it's a bad movie as that it is a gloomy, somewhat slow movie that ultimately does not deliver on its fully apocalyptic promise. I like M. Night--he, at least, does not cast himself in this film (he appears in the credits as the never seen Joey on Alma's phone), but this show seems very unlikely to redeem him. That's a shame because I think there's a niche for his shows. There's a place for movies which inhabit a space focused on despair and hopelessness becoming redemption and wholeness. If this turns out to be his last one, I'd buy a boxed set if it came with good director's voice-over.


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