Friday, 5 June 2009

The Happening (2008)

In little under a year, The Happening, which was released in 2008, has already become this generation’s The Swarm. For those not familiar with Irwin Allen’s late-1970s flop, The Swarm was a disaster movie predicated on a ridiculous threat, that of killer bees(important distinction: AFRICAN killer bees, not the hard-working and industrious American bees), a central flaw compounded by many more flaws. The Happening is also grounded on a ridiculous threat, one which was supposed to be a surprise in the narrative flow of the film, but which has already been exposed with the badness of the movie being culturally propagated like a swarm of killer bees. To paraphrase Michael Caine, I never dreamed it would be the trees... they’ve always been our friends! Yes, trees have had it up to here with mankind and have sought to teach us a lesson by releasing airborne toxins that make us want to kill ourselves in spectacularly grotesque ways, which also in turn makes the wind our enemy. Did I mention that The Happening was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the auteur renown for illogical twists at the end of his movies like Signs and The Village? He’s given up on the illogical twists and gone straight for illogical here!

I have been inundated with warnings about how bad The Happening is: from my friend Jess’s hilarious discussion of it as the Worst Film of 2008 to Christopher Orr’s hilarious spoiler laden list of its terribleness and finally The I.T. Crowd writer and director Graham Linehan leading a global twitter-based viewing of the film here. What is great about The Happening is that you can read all this stuff, read all the reviews about how awful it is and get wind of all the internet chatter about its use of wind as a laugh-inducing threat, but when you watch it you’ll still be left utterly gob-smacked at how stupid the movie really is. It’s a bad movie classic that with its anti-science ecological message becomes totally bullshit. My friends Seymour, Mitch, Jarrad and I let The Happening into our lives one night on DVD and we were became Happened.

Field Notes from a study of The Happening:

1. The title itself, The Happening. Isn’t it the most generic, stupid title you could think of for a movie? Why not call it The Event or The Something? And as if to rub it in every character seems to say the word in dialogue like “What is happening?” or “An evil is happening!” or “Where is this happening?” or “Can this really be happening?” I suspect M. Night was stuck for a title and searched for the most popular word in his script – discounting “the” and “a” and “hotdogs” – and went with The Happening.

2. The problem with M. Night as a director besides his desire to become the next Hitchcock and Spielberg combined is the fact that he has talent. I’ve been an apologist for him in the past as I really liked Unbreakable and Signs was entertaining (a fucking masterpiece in comparison to The Happening) and The Village was decent if you didn’t pay too much attention to its ridiculous Twilight Zone twist. And why? Well, he knows what to do with a camera and he can create slow-building suspense effectively. There are several shots that are fundamentally creepy such as the opening scene where two best females friends chat on a park bench before the Happening causes people to stand still as if frozen by time and one of the female friends decides to stick a hair pin in her neck. Then there’s the one-take where the cop shoots himself in the middle of traffic and we watch several people pick up his gun and do likewise. And a one-shot special effect where a 4WD slams head-on into a tree was so enjoyable we rewound it to watch it again. The problem is that The Happening has the aura of a great zombie film but without zombies. Instead what is our threat? Wind! Fucking wind? How can you film that without being laughable? There is the classic scene where Mark Whalberg, our hero, leads some survivors through a field, running away from a soft breeze as if Days of Heaven was a horror movie. Quick, we need some wind-breakers STAT!

3. Speaking of Mark Whalberg, on the basis of his angry reaction to Andy Samberg’s impression of him on SNL, I fantasised that he went to the premiere of The Happening, saw how he came off in the film, and then went gunning for Shyamalan at the post-film party, ready to punch him square in the face: “Fuck you, dude, you made me look like a total dick!” I like Whalberg, he can be a really great actor and charismatic presence in any number of films (even a dumb action picture like Shooter), but I’ve never seen an actor saddle-bagged the way he is in The Happening. Our introduction to our ‘hero’ is a classroom scene where Whalberg stands in a vest, next to a blackboard with some Einstein quote, mumbling leadenly about disappearing bees. “Have you guys heard of this article about all these bees disappearing?”

The classroom scene also highlights M. Night Shyamalan’s – who is a devout Catholic by the way – broader theme of faith.

Whalberg: “Come on, buddy. Take an interest in science. What could be the
reason bees have vanished?”

Student:[after a long pause] “An act of nature, and we'll never fully
understand it.”

Whalberg: “Nice answer, Jake. He's right. Science will come up with some
reason to put in the books, but in the end it'll be just a theory. I mean, we
will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding.
To be a scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature.”

As Jarrad remarked, “Is he a scientist or a religious teacher?”
Mitch: “Alright, kids, time to drink the special red cordial...”

Yes, part of the reason why Whalberg is directed to be so ineffectual and his character is written as such a dunderhead is that his role as a scientist means diddly squat in the face of this Happening. Yes, faith is a fact. Wait, sorry, faith is a facet of how we approach nature and the world and things like global warming. In Jake’s line of dialogue, replace “nature” with “God” and there you have it.

4. John Leguizamo plays Whalberg’s best friend in the picture and he’s introduced arriving after Whalberg’s class has ended, Marcus Brody to his Indiana Jones, and he spouts some dialogue about some stuff before remarking, “It’s good to be a Maths teacher!”
Mitch (quoting The Micallef Programme): “I’m only just a lowly Security Guard and that is what I am.”

5. However, it’s not only Whalberg who suffers, Shyalaman has also cast indie-movie delight and attractive songstress Zooey Deschanel as his estranged wife. The camera emphasises her delightful eyes and one can note the lovely dress she wears throughout, but the possibility that her and Whalberg have any kind of relationship is really difficult to discern.
Mitch: “The only chemistry here is the imported toxins in the air.”
Jarrad: “You can almost smell the acting.”

6. There are also a couple of lines of dialogue that seem like self-criticisms of the film itself, or at least fair warning as to what type of cinematic experience The Happening is. Sample 1: “Our brains come equipped with a self-preservation mechanism.” Yes, but can science really explain why I’m watching this film if I’m equipped with such a biological principle? Sample 2: “Why are you giving one useless piece of information one step at a time?” Answer your own question, Shyamalan!

7. In case it wasn’t clear what’s happening here, these airborne toxins cause people to kill themselves. Yet who wants to see simple,ordinary, meat and potatoes suicides? Give us some imaginative grotesque cartoon imagery if you can, M. Night! The prime example of this is when Whalberg and his motley band of survivors are sitting around sedately in a diner with all the other survivors who have left behind the mass suicides of the city. Whalberg makes nice with Leguizamo’s daughter and then suddenly a stupid woman sitting next to him says, “Look at this!” And we see her camera phone showing pristine footage recorded from a relative in another state of a zoo keeper walking into a lion’s den and allowing them to eat him. Yet, as his arm is ripped off by one lion, instead of the lion taking the whole body or him falling over from the shock of that, he proceeds to stand around in a daze letting another lion rip off another arm (in the same the scene is ripping off the Mexican-birthday-hey-look-its-an-alien video footage scene in Signs). Now what was funny about it – aside from everything – is that only one or two of us chuckled, a merriment that slowly developed into mass laughter as it all slowly dawned how STUPID that scene was, particularly compounded by all these shocked, stunned reaction shots to the footage from patrons in the diner.

8. We have a scene where John Leguizamo decides to leave his child with Whalberg and Deschanel so he can hitch a ride on a covered jeep to get to another city where his own wife is shopping for some toy or something. Jarrad: “Okay, that’s dumb, nobody would just abandon his child.” Then a slow-motion goodbye shot of Leguizamo looking back in sadness, to which we all bust out laughing waiting for a single tear to roll down his cheek. The plot machinations of the movie have us already prepared for the idea that a nuclear family is formed with Leguizamo’s child in Whalberg and Deschanel’s protection, which just leaves us with how is Leguizamo going to become Happened? Well, he’s in the passenger side of this crowded jeep as they hit Pennsylvania or something and it’s creepy with all these ladders near trees and Ivy Leauge college dopes having hung themselves from sturdy branches. Then Leguizamo decides to help out a lady in the back freaking out by forcing her to compute a maths problem while they believe serenely in the air-tight security of their wound up windows. Jarrad: “Yeah, cars are pretty much air tight.” Oh no, there’s a rip in the ceiling, emphasised in close-up, symbolic of the fragile nature of our social fabric?

9. Then we have some yokel that our ‘heroes’ bump into, a gormless, bearded, yokel, salt of the earth type who gives them a ride and starts to yammer on about hot-dogs for no reason. Why is he going on about hot-dogs a lot? He takes them to his greenhouse where we glimpse some not-too-subtle smokestacks on the horizon (what have we wrought?) and then he starts yammering on about plants, “I know what’s doing this, plants, they release chemicals in the air” and “Most plants react to stimulus ... they proved it in tests.” Basically all he says turns out to be true in the logic of the movie’s science, sorry, faith, no wait, bullshit, and so I guess all that hot-dog stuff is supposed to make us shake our hands ruefully, “What a nutty guy!” and then later, “Wait, he was right! Believe the hot-dog loving morons, they know the truth!” Then again it could also produce the reaction that Mitch believed in: “Plants and trees don’t care if you live or die, you hippie fuck!”

10. So as our heroes move away from the city away from the wind and plants that are killing people and into the natural landscape where wind and plants are minimal (wait, no, that’s not correct), they encounter this idiot fucking Shia LeBeouf type actor playing a panicky soldier straight out of a 1950s B-movie. This is proven when he leans into the car, shocked by the chaos created by this Happening and remarks, “Cheese and crackers!” Cheese and crackers? How home-spun. This and “Do you like hot-dogs?” are going to be bumper-sticker worthy catchphrases for sure! Question: is there a swear jar on Shyamalan’s set? Wait, don’t say anything believable like “Jesus Christ!” or “Holy shit!” because that’s a five dollar fine. Why don’t you use “Cheese and crackers” instead? Thanks, Mr Filmmaker!

11. Suspense. You can create this with people stuck out in a field and wind menacingly moving towards them, which the characters attempt to out-run. Yes, it’s the flipside of that old chestnut where a hero outruns a fire explosion. This time the wind gets a chance to show off its merits as a special effect. Also let’s show off Shyamalan’s command of direction with Whalberg being all confused and impotent as an action hero, trying to remember his five step empirical plan, and also Shyamalan’s command of believable dialogue when Zooey remarks in all the panic, “We can’t stand here like uninvolved observers!”

12. Marky Mark, Zooey, Leguiazmo’s pipsqueak daughter, and two boys who tag along for the ride keep on travelling through the scenic countryside when they find a model home. Then Whalberg finds himself in a study and notices ... a PLANT! Holy fucking shit. In the words of Ash, “Quick. Get an axe!” But no, Whalberg approaches slowly and starts talking softly:

Whalberg [to house plant] "Hello. My name is Elliot Moore. I'm just going to
talk in a very positive manner, giving off good vibes. We're just here to use
the bathroom, and we're just going to leave. I hope that's okay. [touches leaf]
Plastic. I'm talking to a plastic plant. I'm still doing it."

Ha ha. He was talking to a plant. Ho hum. As Seymour remarked deadpan, “That was an amazing scene.” Then the five heroes run away from the model home and see too many people around it (apparently the toxins affect people when they’re in large groups?) and then we see one older dude start up a massive lawn mower and then lies down in front of it. Jarrad: “This is going to rule!”

13. The heroes find another house boarded up and seemingly empty, but no, some guy is in there being all isolationist and “Don’t come in my house y’all!” The two boys keep banging on the house loudly like they’re the fucking Goonies and what do you know they both get shot-gunned to death by the crazy nut inside. Jarrad: “Oh, humans. We kind of deserve it, don’t we?” Embrace the wind when things are this grim.

14. The heroes find another fucking house this time run by a passive-aggressive kook grandma in a rocking chair who is all “Want some of my lemon drink?” and keeps being all “Well, come in and have some supper. Not that I made it for you!” and all “Don’t take my cookie, child! Here, have the cookie, child.” It’s like they walked into another movie, like a VC Andrews modern gothic horror novel, Flowers in the Attic 2: Electric Boogaloo. This is underscored by the scene where Mark Whalberg wakes up after spending the night at the house, walking around slowly in the emptiness, opening a door, and finding a bed, and oh shit, there’s this creepy porcelain doll on the bed, and yet, he keeps moving towards it slowly. Seymour: “It’s a doll on the bed. What’s he confused about?” Sure enough, the nutso woman springs up behind up and is all “Argh, get out of here!” Then she wanders off outside to where the wind gets her and Whalberg backs the fuck up closing the door before the wind jiggles the door handle (Mitch: “We’ll be okay until they learn how to open doors.”). Then the old woman begins to bash her head against the windows of the house in an effort to kill herself but unavoidably releasing the wind into the house. Jarrad: “Oh well, they’ve hypnotised her to act on behalf of the wind, that’s fucking retarded.”

15. Deschanel is with the kid in a farm house outside and Whalberg is in a cellar, barricaded against the wind, but there’s a talk pipe or something, which they can communicate through despite the fact the pipe is buried underneath a field between their two structures and they can hear each other with perfect pitch clarity. Mitch: “Fuck, this movie is making me angry.” They seem to be the only survivors left alive. Mitch: “This is like Noah’s Ark... where only the best people are meant to survive and one of them is apparently Mark Whalberg.” Then Whalberg who’s been wearing this mood ring because “science” has proven people emit colours that denote certain emotions looks at the wind outside, looks at his ring and its gone orange. Mitch: “Orange means scared of an impending apocalypse.” Then with their unconvincing martial woes and non-existent attraction to each other, Whalberg and Deschanel decide to cross the ground between them and meet in the middle of the toxin-heavy air. Mutual suicide! Nice going, humanity. Love conquers all, particularly when you pull along an innocent tyke who is of no relation to you. And then the wind stops because things were only Happening for twenty-four hours since it started. Woah, nice save, nature. ANTI-CLIMAX!

16. Then we get some quack three months later on the television nervously gesticulating about how “nature is something we’ll never understand” and the whole mass suicide thing “is a prelude, a warning, we’ve become a threat to this planet.” Jarrad: “Why is the film making the man espousing its message look so crazy?” Then Deschanel finds out she’s pregnant and then somewhere in France the same thing that Happened in the opening Happens there in the conclusion and then the credit “Directed by M. Night Shyamalan” came up and Mitch summed it up for all of us when he replied, “Fuck you.”


Adam said...

that was awesome. i don't need to see it now, but i also kind of wish i had. kind of.

tristan said...

Haha, thanks, Adam. It's staggering in its miscalculation and muddled-thinking.

Karen said...


I wrote a blog entry about this film in January.

Thanks, your post reminded me of the BS glory of this film.

tristan said...

Thanks, Karen :)

Actually I remember your post and forgot to link to it in the section where I ran through web posts about the film that made me want to experience it all the more! Haha, and yes, the marriage problems they were facing were so dumb. It's like a Christian movie version of an "affair". Oh, no, you have a dessert and in your mind you wanted to have sex with him but didn't do anything about it, which is worse than cheating, oh my Heavenly lord!

dan said...


i liked unbreakable too, man!

swore i'd never watch another shyamalan again, though.

tristan said...

Poor Zooey. I felt for her. She's usually the highlight in many a faulty film (see: Almost Famous). But here she was left lost in the breeze with glassy eyes probably thinking about how more satisfying her music career is then taking direction from M. Night.

Yeah, Unbreakable is great. Took seriously the superhero stuff before the current wave of dark gritty comic book movies. The final five minutes is stupid but so many affecting sequences.

But yeah you should watch The Happening, Dan, if only to hear yourself say "What the hell?" every five minutes!

JBond said...

There's a cool debate going on over at this link about 'The Happening'you might want to read. It's starts with Mark Wahlberg being looked over for 'The Crow' reboot.