M. Night Shyamalan has seen his share of derision over the past decade. His movies have oscillated between the abominable The Sixth Sense to the pop culture-defining The Last Airbender. He has become the butt of mean-spirited jokes and dismissive condescension.
But in 2008, Shyamalan did something nobody expected. Coming off of the Paul Giamatti vehicle Lady in the Water, the reclusive savant went into hiding for two years. Determined to top the films he’d made thus far, he embarked on a long and arduous quest. When he reemerged, he’d produced a new kind of epic – a film so tight, so flawless, and so unbreakable that all signs pointed to it being a critical darling.
He’d made The Happening.
When Shyamalan released his masterwork, it met with an unreceptive audience. Moviegoers and critics alike failed to cut through Shyamalan’s clever ruse to the meaty social commentary underneath. Christopher Orr of The New Republic called it “An astonishment, so idiotic in conception and inept in execution that, after seeing it, one almost wonders whether it was real or imagined.” Tom Long of Detroit News said “It’s downright stupid.”
It seems these critics missed the point. Perhaps they refer to the scene where Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) admits that he is an adult who still wears mood rings. Far from “idiotic” and “inept,” this is an important clue for the audience that Elliot is still a kid at heart. It foreshadows how he handles situations later in the movie with the compulsiveness and non-existent pragmatism of a child.
Or how about when Elliot, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), and Julian (John Leguizamo) gather around an iPhone to watch a video of a man being mauled by lions. The video appears somehow professionally lit and shot – surely an oversight on Shyamalan’s part? Not at all. On the contrary, this moment is Shyamalan’s clever nod-wink to the film industry where GoPro and iPhone footage has broken into mainstream Hollywood fare. It has little to do with the film’s plot, but it means the world to his fellow filmmakers to see shoutouts like this.
Then there’s Elliott, a determined science teacher and the ostensible protagonist of the film. As a scientist myself, I was enamored with the character. He makes one terrible decision after the other with no thought given to his well-being or that of his friends, family, and fellow survivors. But this is no mistake.
When we are introduced to Elliot in the classroom, he’s passionately lecturing his students on bee hive collapse (a clever parable for the events about to happen to humanity). After berating a student for not knowing why bees are disappearing, he states, “Nice answer, Jake. He’s right. Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it’ll be just a theory. I mean, we will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding. To be a scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature.”
No self-respecting scientist would ever say something so inane, so dumb, or so absolutely anti-intellectual. What scientist doesn’t know what a theory is? The answer is none. Zero scientists. And Shyamalan knows this. He paints his protagonist in this pathetic light so as to explain every awful choice he makes later in the movie. It is a brilliant character-building moment for Elliot. In just 5 minutes, we learn we are dealing with a total moron.
Midway through the film, on the run from a massive toxin outbreak, Elliot and Alma meet a nursery owner (Frank Collison) whose obsessions include plants and hot dogs. He offers Elliot and Alma a ride to his home. Along the way, he reveals his theory on where the toxin came from: plants.
He says that plants can understand good and negative thoughts, and that they respond to human interaction by releasing chemicals into the air. When Elliot looks doubtful, the nursery owner responds, “They proved it in tests.” and “We don’t know how they do it. They just evolve!” Elliot takes him at his word because, as has been demonstrated, he’s the world’s worst scientist. Shyamalan really wants us to understand this point.
Later in the movie, an important moment occurs in an abandoned model home. Elliot finds himself standing alone in a room with a small ficus. He approaches the tree and begins to talk to it, telling it that he and his party are just passing through. “My name is Elliot Moore. I’m just going to talk in a very positive manner, giving off good vibes. We’re just here to use the bathroom, and we’re just going to leave.” He then realizes the tree is plastic, and reprimands himself for being so stupid as to talk to a fake tree. Never mind that a real tree would have had just as little to contribute to their repartee. Shyamalan further confirms that Elliot has an intelligence quotient comparable to a plank of wood.
Central to the plot of The Happening is the romance between Elliot and Alma. Shortly after the toxin begins spreading across the northeast, Elliot reveals to Julian that his relationship with Alma is in dire straits. For the rest of the movie, nearly every scene is undercut with steely glances and confessions of infidelity.
To the average viewer, these moments might seem forced and ham-fisted. But of course they aren’t; Shyamalan is making a statement about love. He believes their relationship is more important than any natural disaster or emergency situation. In his mind, love takes precedence. Moreover, this calls back to the mood ring conceit from earlier in The Happening. As with his capacity to problem-solve, Elliot also suffers the emotional maturity of an infant. Their relationship is his opportunity to grow.
This thesis is never clearer than the final scene of the film. In that sequence, toxin is running rampant outside. Because of this, Elliot is trapped in a house while Alma and Julian’s daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), are sequestered outside in a rickety old shed. The estranged lovers communicate through a long tube that carries their voices between the two buildings.
In a moment of true self-sacrifice, Elliot decides he doesn’t want to die alone; if he’s going to lose his life, he’d rather it be beside Alma. He opens the door and begins walking toward the shed. He doesn’t even stop to think that once he gets there, he’ll need to open the door and expose Alma and Jess to the toxin if he wants to be beside them.
Luckily, Alma makes that choice for him. She follows his lead and opens the door to the shed, exposing not only herself but the child entrusted to her care to the ravages of the toxin. It is a beautiful moment. Note that no one asks Jess what she thinks about all of this: a biting commentary on how children are ignored in society.
Just as Alma, Jess, and Elliot begin walking toward one another, Jess seemingly willing to die so that Alma can embrace Elliot one last time, it becomes clear that the toxin is gone. In spite of any effort on the part of humanity, the scare is over. Just as one expert said on a news broadcast earlier in the film, these types of mass suicide events tend to ramp up and then end suddenly without any warning. And the audience is expected to have trusted his opinion despite his total lack of evidence. After all, this expert had PhD, and he had a chart to prove his hypothesis. Was this yet more of Shyamalan’s commentary on terrible scientists? I feel as though the filmmaking genius of The Happening has made itself apparent at this point, but I’ll let you decide.
Beyond Shyamalan’s layered commentary, the hate for The Happening boils down to a simple misconception. Audiences have assumed for years that “The Happening” refers to the abrupt appearance of the neurotoxin. They believe it describes the event wherein average citizens lose all impulse control and start killing themselves. This is not the case. “The Happening,” in point of fact, refers to the film itself.
The Happening is M. Night Shyamalan’s meta-commentary on his œuvre and on the industry. It is the consummate example of his genius as an auteur. For all of its complexities, The Happening is truly remarkable because it playfully twists its own identity.
Consider the audience as they watch this film. Stunned by masterful turns in logic, it encourages viewers to ask themselves questions like, “Why would anyone do that?” “That makes no sense. What is he talking about?” and “What’s happening?”
Indeed, The Happening isn’t so much a movie as it is a force of nature. People happened to decide to go see this film. Once there, this movie happened to them. And once they were out, they happened to think it was a huge waste of time and money.
Only someone as self-aware and brazen as Shyamalan could wrench such a reasonable response from his audience. He created a movie that perfectly captures the experience of watching a Shyamalan film. That level of meta thought hasn’t assaulted cinemas since Tim Burton announced his Johnny Depp biopic.
As some have so astutely deduced, this article was written in jest for April Fool’s Day. While I do enjoy The Happening for its [unintentional?] comic value, I don’t think it’s a cinematic masterpiece. And to Mr. Shyamalan, consider this recompense for ruining Avatar: The Last Airbender for the world.