Shyamalan’s eco-horror misfire almost ended his career, but 15 years later, the film comes off more as a goofy cult classic than box office bomb.
The say goes: fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But they forgot a couplet: fool me three times, I’ve just watched The Happening.
After going 0-2 with critics and audiences with The Village and the insane mermaid mythology that was The Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan had one more strike to give before officially ending up in movie directing timeout. That third strike came during the same monumental summer movie season as Iron Man and The Dark Knight, 2008.
In retrospect, ’08 began our current Superhero Movie Hell. Sadly, it also marks the end of Shyamalan’s Phase One. It was the era where he delivered supernatural thrillers that were box office hits, garnering him a reputation as a celebrated and award-nominated auteur. He’s one of the few horror filmmakers making original stories that was able to turn himself into a brand. So when a new Shyamalan film was released, it was essential viewing. It’s a feat not replicated again until Jordan Peele introduced us to the Sunken Place in 2017’s Get Out.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s brand started rising too close to the sun following Signs. Following that feature with a string of disappointments pushed the movie-going community toward cutting him loose. His big-budget eco-horror B-movie about killer trees that attack via strong breezes would likely never save him. Instead, it buried him.
In her New York Times review of The Happening, Manohla Dargis summed up Shyamalan’s career at that point, writing, “A fine craftsman with aspirations to the canon, this would-be auteur has, in the last few years, experienced a sensational fall from critical and commercial grace, partly through his own doing…and partly through the entertainment media that, once they smell weakness, will always bite the hand they once slathered in drool.”
Almost 15 years after its release, The Happening is shorthand for career ruiner. It’s never discussed unless you want to get a rise out of Mark Wahlberg in interviews- “The Happening. Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it.” But suppose you squint your eyes and pretend it’s a satirical comedy. In that case, it turns from an all-time debacle to one of the most unintentionally funny (and prescient) horror comedies of the 21st century.
When Wahlberg speaks nonsense about trees or leaves his science class with the inspiring words, “Hey guys…nothing,” he takes every moment and line way too seriously.
This isn’t to say the film works or is sneakily a masterpiece. To be clear, The Happening is not a masterpiece. It’s a massive misfire of a feature, but B-movies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more worthy of appreciation than others, especially if they star Wahlberg as a high school science teacher.
Shyamalan meant The Happening to be a big-budget throwback to features like Them!, the B-movies of the 1950s Atomic Age. Films where actors could say stuff like, “There appears to be an event occurring,” with a straight face and get away with it. Except instead of giant mutated ants attacking humans, Shyamalan plays to our modern fears of climate change and ecological devastation by having the Earth kill us.
The film opens with its most effective sequence. Two friends sit on a bench in a bustling Central Park when suddenly there is complete silence. We only hear the wind. Everyone turns statue still. Then, one by one, these people, stuck in a trance-like state, kill themselves gruesomely. Sadly, whatever toxins the Earth is poisoning us with doesn’t make you take a bunch of sleeping pills and die peacefully in your bed.
Since this is R-rated (Shyamalan’s first), most people take their lives in the most violent way possible. They leap off construction sites. They walk into a lion’s cage and goad the animal into making them lunch. This latter death, shown in a grainy phone video, is a hilarious self-parody of the alien caught on film in Signs. Unfortunately, like every choice in this film, it’s unclear how intentional the self-parody is.
The story centers on science teacher and honeybee enthusiast Elliot Moore (Wahlberg). When he hears about the airborne, suicide-inducing outbreak, he flees Philadelphia with his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel, acting like she took one too many edibles on set). Tagging along are his math teacher co-worker buddy, Julien (John Leguizamo), and Julien’s daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).
Even though Wahlberg is hilariously miscast as an authority on science and nature, he’s one of the few actors in this movie that gets the assignment. When making a good B-movie, the most important job of the actor is to take yourself seriously. When Wahlberg speaks nonsense about trees or leaves his science class with the inspiring words, “Hey guys…nothing,” he takes every moment and line way too seriously. Watching a close-up of Wahlberg thinking so hard while standing in the middle of a field becomes a master class in comedic screen acting because of Wahlberg’s sheer commitment.
The Happening should have been celebrated as a schlocky throwback or, at least, a cult classic that rivals The Room for unintentional comedy.
Dig deeper into the ensemble, and you’ll find other actors who balance this impossible tone of goofy and earnestness, including the hotdog-loving nursery owner played by Frank Collison. His whole purpose is to be weird and give stilted exposition, and he nails it. Then, of course, there’s the MVP of this operation, Betty Buckley, playing the lonely and insane Mrs. Jones, a woman territorial over her lemon drink.
The other reason to appreciate this insanity is that nothing like this will happen again. No world exists anymore where a studio gives a man $50 million to make The Happening after two flops in a row. None of the films in his recent comeback (Phase 2? 3?) have a budget close to this. These were the final days where a filmmaker could get a blank check and use some of the most talented film artists around to make a piece of shit at least look professional.
A big reason why the Wahlberg close-up works is because this was one of the final films shot by longtime Jonathan Demme cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. He’s the best ever at shooting close-ups, but even a master can’t make trees gently swaying look scary.
We should celebrate The Happening as a schlocky throwback. Or, at least, a cult classic that rivals The Room for unintentional comedy. But because we were coming down from the high of his early hits and rolling our eyes about how seriously Shyamalan took himself, it was difficult to wrap our brains around a movie that’s supposed to be this ridiculous.
A movie about an invisible threat that kills millions of people and makes society lose its collective mind also sounds more plausible these days. Perhaps it was ill-timed as much as misbegotten. It confirmed Shyamalan wouldn’t become the next Spielberg. Still, to the people who say this movie is worthless, I say, “What?! Noooo.”