You’re not interested in what happened to the bees?
–Elliot Moore, “The Happening”
In terms of a genre consumed to entertain us, the Apocalypse must be fun. Whether at its most bombastic and implausible, or mired in gritty realism and disease, disaster narratives must contain a certain level of grotesque-yet-thrilling spectacle in order for us to be enthralled. But except for a handful of gory “set pieces” that are filmed as dispassionately as time-lapse footage of paint drying, The Happening provides none of those things.
And yet, I believe it is one of the most emblematic films regarding our current predicament.
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is currently enjoying a “renaissance” as the Horrible Movie du Jour, with some going so far as comparing it to such luminaries as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Ostensibly a horror film, it is claimed that The Happening is not at all scary—and on the whole, completely laughable and worthless.
However, this claim that there is nothing scary about The Happening is what makes me suspect that there might be additional, unsaid, unarticulated reasons for hating this film. Because The Happening is absolutely scary; or, if not jump-scare level scary, at least disturbing and as creepy as fuck, getting under your skin and genuinely making you feel awful and bleak as the credits roll.
The movie opens with people suddenly getting disoriented in New York City’s Central Park. The strange behavior includes becoming physically still, repeating words, and even walking backwards. Suddenly, a woman stabs herself in the neck with a giant hairpin. Cut to a bunch of construction workers, who start calmly jumping off the scaffolding of the building they’re working on.
That second sequence, part of the several gory over-the-top suicide scenes in the film, brings—at least to me—an immediate “sense memory” of 911, and the jumpers. Shyamalan clearly references this event throughout The Happening—a conceit that is either going to “go over” with a viewer, or not. And that’s pretty much Shyamalan for you—he’s either going to “go over” with you, or not.
Cut to high-school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) teaching his class about the disappearance of bees and the ideas of Colony Collapse Disorder. And the point there is, when a certain population reaches a “peak” number of members, crazy shit starts happening to thin the herd back down to a manageable amount.
So here we have foreshadowing with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And Wahlberg’s acting itself here…kind of has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There’s a lot of hammy acting in The Happening, and a lot of super-melodrama.
But here is what I think, if you will excuse the expression, “happened.”
The Happening, it seems to me, is based off of those sci-fi themed disaster films of the 50s and early 60s. You know, the ones with the open-mouthed, aghast cast on the poster with some radioactive giant spider hovering over them.
And the #1 film I think about when I think about The Happening is the 1958 movie The Blob—and Wahlberg’s much-maligned performance reminds me a lot of Steve McQueen’s in that flick.
Which is to say, here we have the generic Heroic Guy completely impotent in the face of some undefined massive horror. And it’s not even a cool horror, like in many disaster films…no zombies, no spectacular tornado, no giant lizard.
No, in The Blob, the Enemy is a giant ball of Space Snot. And in The Happening, it’s…plants.
How is the Heroic Guy supposed to react to that, to the banality of that particular Apocalypse?
Similarly, how are the Heroic Guys of our contemporary society supposed to react to the myriad banal Apocalypses that hover menacingly over our heads in the poster?
And that, to me, is the key to The Happening, and why it’s so disturbing. What kills the masses of the movie—what drives them to an emotionless, dispassionate suicide—are the low-level anxieties and ephemeral-yet-palpable horrors of everyday life in the current reality.
On top of that, to scoff at the idea (and here I’m spoiling the movie, though the movie sort of spoils itself pretty early on) that plants can in some way work to cull the human herd…or that nature itself could do same…
Well, here’s George Carlin’s take on it:
We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.
The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed.
And plants are some smart, capable motherfuckers. Don’t turn your back on a plant…unless it’s a plastic one, of course.
But the other major theme of The Happening is simple, garden-variety paranoia and fear—going hand-in-hand with the constant hum of the low-level anxiety our media and entertainment (like, for that matter M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening) are only too happy to addict us to.
FEAR—like right after 911, like the bullshit we went through with the latest election.
Are all those people committing suicide in the movie simply because of some “neurotoxin” the plants are emitting…or does the FEAR have something to do with it?
And it’s the character of the isolated old woman (the ma’am from Wahlberg’s famous “no, ma’am…” line) later in the movie that drives this point home.
She has been completely isolated in her house for God knows how long…paranoid, angry…so even though she’s never even heard of the Killer Plants, and the Killer Plants don’t tend to kill humans as long as they stay in small numbers…she gets fatally possessed by the plants anyway.
And yet a couple scenes later, Wahlberg, his wife, and their soon-to-be adopted daughter all consciously decide to overcome fear…and they not only survive, but the plants seem to stop their neurotoxic rampage completely as a result.
But FEAR can’t be criticized too harshly in our culture…because how will the media machine ever go on? How will most politicians function?
Free-floating FEAR, applied in steady amounts…which is essentially the amorphous “happening” we all seem obsessed with.
Hence the significance of the fact that at the very end of the movie, the “suicide epidemic” seems to hit Paris next—the scene, in “real life,” of some of the worst recent terrorist attacks. The fear must continue; that is what terrorism is, that is its purpose. And it’s not only the Terrorists proper who are doing this to our society, but also those who are in charge of informing and governing us.
But who in the hell wants to hear that?
This is not all to say that The Happening is the cinematic equivalent in terms of quality, as say, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is a flawed film, and certainly there are enough meme-worthy lines emitted from Wahlberg alone to distract from any sort of serious message
The message is there, though. This is sort of the world we are living in, right now. And if we are not careful, those blank, clueless, helpless, glassy-eyed expressions Wahlberg and co-star Zooey Deschanel sport throughout the movie might just be our own.