Postmortem: ‘The Happening’

  • Part 1: It’s All About The Benjamins

I imagine that M. Night Shyamalan, coming off the blockbuster success of 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” thought that he literally ruled the world.  That movie, on a $40 million budget, earned almost $673 million dollars.

His followup,  2000’s “Unbreakable,” cost $75 million to produce, almost doubled the cost of his first film and earned just over $248 million dollars.  While not as wildly successful as “The Sixth Sense,” it was still quite profitable.

His third film, “Signs” was cheaper to produce than “Unbreakable,” at $72 million, but earned over $408 million dollars.

His forth film, 2004’s “The Village” cost $60 million to produce, and earned almost $257 million dollars, but cracks had begun to appear in his armor.  “The Village,” while profitable, had the lowest rating on Rottentomatoes.com rating of any of his prior films, at 43 percent.

Most critics believe that it was little more than an extended Twilight Zone episode, though that’s not quite fair to “The Twilight Zone,” which was significantly better.

His next film was his first flop.  “Lady in the Water,” which cost $70 million to produce, earned only $72 million worldwide.  The studio that released all his films prior to this one, Disney, declined to do so for ‘Water.’   Shyamalan then took the movie to Warner Bros., who in hindsight probably wished he hadn’t because–while it earned back its production costs–wasn’t profitable.

His next film, 2008’s “The Happening” had a remarkably low Rottentomatoes score of 17 percent, which one might understandably equate with box-office disaster, but not in this particular case because  it earned over $163 million dollars.

  • Part 2: The Epidemic

The thing is “The Happening” is actually a decent movie.  For the most part it’s well-acted, though Mark Wahlberg isn’t terribly convincing as a science teacher, and Zooey Deschanel isn’t convincing as an actress, with her odd facial expressions and general air of quirkiness.  Despite that, the first half hour is genuinely harrowing, as people kill themselves for apparently no reason at all.

And if Shyamalan had perhaps left it like that, then things would have been at least interesting.  Instead, he decided to provide a reason for the epidemic, a reason so shocking that to even consider it you’d have to be either incredibly bold or remarkably silly.

His idea put plants at the source of the epidemic.  Not in the sense of triffids, which were mobile, venomous plants–which may sound sort of dumb, but visually at least it’s easy to tell what is or isn’t a threat–or those killer vines from Carter Smith‘s awesomely creepy “The Ruins,” which were not only somewhat mobile, but had the ability to mimic human voices as well as other sounds.  Shyamalan took another route entirely, one that was perhaps more environmentally aware.  For some reason, after thousand of years of people generally fraking up the environment and plants seemingly not giving a damn, they have had enough.  Their response was to produce a chemical that made humans suicidal, which is an interesting idea.

But one which creates another problem, which is how do you show it in action?  With clouds of pollen blowing about (that’s actually not a bad idea because I have had allergies that felt like they were trying to kill me)?

Shyamalan’s idea was to show nothing at all.  Actually, that’s not quite fair.  What he would use to represent the spreading of these chemicals would be wind, so whenever it was happening you would see leaves moving in the wind, grass flattening, bushes rustling and things of that nature.

So at some point you end up with people in a field, running from the wind, which looks really unscary.

And to be honest, sort of dumb.

Though what’s arguably worse is that Shyamalan, probably realizing that his concept of killer plants has virtually no visual appeal in a medium that depends almost entirely on the visual, decides to use characters, such as Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) as exposition devices designed to tell viewers what’s happening and why, because we can’t see it.

  • Part 3: Exposition Man

Though the worse example of this tendency is “Nursery Owner, “(Frank Collison) a character that’s so focused on the task of providing exposition that he doesn’t even have a name, and ‘Exposition Man’ is probably owned by either Marvel or DC.

As I said, “The Happening” isn’t a terrible film–which isn’t to say that it’s a great one by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s watchable, well-shot, and somewhat creepy at times, but why Shyamalan felt the need to create a movie where the threat was invisible, and manifested itself in the motion of grass, bushes and trees is a bit beyond me.

Perhaps if the movie were in the hands of a director better able to create tension and suspense then perhaps the result wold have been different.

Though we can only play the hand that we’re dealt, which means that “The Happening” will always be what it is, which is a entertaining, though ultimately empty, trifle.

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2 thoughts on “Postmortem: ‘The Happening’

  1. Excellent blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a
    little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform
    like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused ..
    Any suggestions? Bless you!

    • ‘Free’ is always good. In the case of WordPress, there are options that aren’t free that you could always add later if you’re interested.

      Good luck!

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