When Nature Kills! That should have been the title of this film. Or maybe Call of Nature: The Trees’ Revenge. Then, at least, The Happening’s B-rated Corman/Romero sensibility would have been acknowledged instead of flirted with and superciliously buried.
And yet, you wouldn’t mistake The Happening for anyone else’s movie. It’s got M. Night Shyamalan’s now-trademarked formula: intriguing premise, ominous tone and striking imagery—all diminished by leaden acting, heavy-handed editing, lethally slow pace and disappointing or non-existent follow-through.
M. Night’s latest begins with real promise. Mark Wahlberg is a high-school science teacher in Philadelphia, encouraging his students to hypothesize about why bees are disappearing. At the same time, people in New York City’s Central Park start talking funny, walking backward and killing themselves in creative ways.
Panic sets in quickly, as it usually does, and people assume terrorists are to blame. The poor souls in The Happening actually believe this far longer than the rest of us, who have surmised—from M. Night’s constant reminding—that Mother Nature is very, very unhappy. We don’t get much more explication beyond a few spurts of pseudo-science and lines like, “I think it’s the plants!” but that stuff is just frosting anyway. The real pleasure comes from the dystopian glee of watching people flee Philadelphia when the malady begins to spread, or act rudely to one another when transportation becomes limited, or, in one of the film’s creepiest moments, stroll off scaffolding with carefree abandon.
Wahlberg (likeable as usual, but struggling with line delivery and complex emotion), leaves town with his math teacher friend (a criminally underused John Leguizamo, doing his best to raise the acting bar), his friend’s daughter, and his halfway-estranged wife (Zooey Deschanel, playing up her alien weirdness to optimal effect). But the unfortunate suicide/backward-walking thing keeps, well, happening. No one is safe from trees.
So they stumble through the countryside asking a lot of questions, running from the wind in the grass, taking their leave of side-characters you don’t care about, and making the acquaintance of charming backwoods folk with mild personality disorders. It’s an adventure, and at this point in the movie, when things should really be amping up, the pace slows to a crawl, as though M. Night used up all his good ideas in the beginning and left the rest of the movie to his peons.
The Happening’s most inspired moments are also its most ludicrous. How, exactly, a plant-emitted neurotoxin could scramble a man’s brainwaves so thoroughly that he’s lobotomized and instantly suicidal, but still innovative enough to start a lawnmower and lie down in front of it, is never made clear. It makes for good Romero-esque gore, but it strains credibility. For a more plausible take on how the human mind might react under similar chemical/viral strain, see Serenity or Dawn of the Dead.
Images of gore, however, are a welcome respite from the interminably vacant dialogue and laughable visual cues. Slow motion is applied liberally during meaningful moments, and the camera often lingers too long on a gesture, as if to shout, “Look at them holding hands! That’s important!”
M. Night’s constant use of some thunder-like sound in the background is equally manipulative but also effective. It makes you want to go back and suffer through some of his earlier ventures to see if he employed the same trick.
The Happening has a strange feel. Nothing much really happens beyond a few minor punctuations of violence and fear, but M. Night would have you believe it’s the most serious, dire thing you’ve ever seen. It’s here that he scorns his worthy B-movie influences and tries to make it seem like he’s better than all that rubbish.
Reflecting upon previous works such as The Lady in the Water, in which the director cast himself as a god-like martyr whose writing actually saves the world (or something like that), it becomes clear that the guiding principle here is ego. M. Night is so wrapped up in his didactic message that he neglects the fundamental laws of moviemaking.
And you get the sense, in all of his films, that he may really believe all this crazy stuff. There’s a great deal of conviction in it, and that can go a long way toward suspending an audience’s disbelief. But it can also come across as browbeating. If M. Night’s intention for this film was some kind of environmental cautionary tale, then he might have failed in that too. The premise seems more likely to provoke a kind of Francis Baconian reaction. It’s not “We screwed up, let’s be nice to trees or else.” It’s “That tree is goddamn terrifying—let’s burn all the forests to the ground, pronto.” According to the logic of The Happening, that may be the only way to save the human race.