M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening opens with promise. Mass suicides mysteriously occur across the East Coast. Builders fall from scaffolding en masse like 100 Madonnas at the Brits. New Yorkers in Central Park suddenly stop and mutilate themselves. It’s all undeniably eerie. And then Mark Wahlberg starts talking about bees, and the film never really recovers.
Where to begin? The title. The Happening sounds like a joke title. The word “happening” is used approximately 13 times throughout the movie, eg. “Can this really be happening?” “Whatever is happening is happening to smaller and smaller populations.” “There appears to be an event happening.” “Why is this happening?” No seriously, why is this happening?
Next, there’s the casting. Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher called Elliot. If you want someone to run around with a gun and punch people in the face, Wahlberg is a perfectly decent choice. But a science teacher? Meanwhile, Zooey Deschanel plays his alien wife Alma. It’s never explicitly mentioned that she’s an alien, but that seems like the most likely explanation based on her performance, dialogue and name.
When we meet Alma, she explains, “I don’t like to show my emotions,” and spends the rest of the film being the single most emotional character ever put to screen. Alma’s other lines of dialogue include: “We went out and we had dessert,” and “We had tiramisu together.” She mostly talks about pudding. And she does so with the gormless delivery of a cross-eyed martian. With a fringe.
Speaking of dialogue, the screenplay has a distracting aversion to swearing, with terrified characters exclaiming: “Good mother of god!” “Can you believe how crappy people are?” and of course, “Cheese and crackers!” Shyamalan was either very hungry when he wrote the script, or he thinks that swearing is worse than the film’s many scenes of violence. This is a movie in which children get shot in the head but no one says “shit.”
Then there’s the twist. This is M. Night Shyamalan. There’s always a twist. My personal favourite is that he wrote Stewart Little. Here, spoiler alert, the twist is that it was the trees all along. Once you’ve stopped laughing, you start wondering why these people don’t just stay indoors. Then you continue laughing at people running away from trees, and an infamous scene in which Mark Wahlberg talks to a plant. Maybe he thought it was Zooey Deschanel.
More spoilers: whatever’s happening stops happening when Elliot and Alma resolve their marital dispute and remember their love for each other, even though they look like they’ve never met before and come from totally different planets. This is either a massive coincidence, or it means the trees decided to stop their mass killing based on the fate of one human relationship.
Any ecological message is overwhelmed by Shamalan’s relentless incompetence. There’s no hero, no menace, and at no point does anyone come up with anything resembling a plan. Just a bunch of idiots wandering around with their mouths open looking confused. This isn’t because they’re in character. It’s because M. Night Shit-for-brains doesn’t know what he’s doing. The word he’d use is “crappy.“ The reality is fucking awful.