M. Night Shyamalan is one of the more interesting directors out there when it comes to career trajectory. Building his career recognition on twists, it’s slightly ironic that his film career would also have a twist to it. Think about it, The Sixth Sense is still his most memorable film and the first film people think of whenever someone talks about film twists, Unbreakable and Signs continued this upward trajectory with people thinking it would never go down. But then in 2010, the world was awoken to how low Shyamalan can sink to by angering the entire Last Airbender fanbase. However, in hindsight, it was predictable this would happen, and I’m reminded of this every time I’m reminded of The Happening.
People who have seen The Happening often file it under the “so bad it’s good category” because between all the awfulness you can laugh at how awful it is. But about 3 or so odd years ago, I watched it again and during this, I started to see this film differently from a “so bad it’s good “ film, to a “so bad it’s bad” film, in fact infuriatingly bad. Moments that were regarded as the funniest part didn’t feel funny anymore. Why my opinion has changed is something I’d like to explore while writing this.
In case you’re unaware of the most boring disaster film ever, The Happening gets you right into the “action” when all over New York people are dying by mass suicide. Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is a science teacher who flees Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and maths teacher and best friend Julian (John Leguizamo), the rest of the film is them running from whatever is happening and trying to figure out what caused it.
First of all, this film does admittedly get off to a semi-decent start by putting you right at the beginning of people starting to commit mass suicide, rather than having the disaster commence after introducing us to the characters. In a way, this is better because it instantly gets people thinking about what’s going and why people are doing this. But it is immediately destroyed the moment Mark Wahlberg opens his mouth. I think Mark Wahlberg is a good actor, he was amazing in The Departed and although he’s probably the most typecast actor working today, he’s still an impressive actor, but in The Happening, he gets very soft-spoken, so soft that you can’t tell in his voice how his character is feeling, it’s a very flat performance that is shared with the rest of the cast.
His introductory scene when he is lecturing his students about bees disappearing literally spoils the entire film, and not it a so subtle it’s clever way. Remember Shaun of the Dead? remember how it foreshadows the entire film in 15 seconds of dialogue? That was clever right? Well in The Happening it takes an entire scene with the characters literally spelling it out for you. Well, at least it gives you the excuse not to watch the rest of the film.
But for whatever compelling reason you find yourself continuing to watch The Happening, you encounter some of the dumbest actions that no human being would ever do. For instance, there is a scene in which Elliot is comforting Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) with a mood ring, when I watched this scene I thought it was very sweet, however, the two are interrupted by a woman we’ve never met before who shows them a video of a zookeeper having his arms ripped off by a lion. Who in their right mind would show a complete stranger who has a little girl near her a video so disturbing? Not long after that, a random man tells everyone that whatever is happening is not happening 90 miles from where they are and everyone listens to him and leaves. Just like that. No questions asked. So many moments in The Happening are followed by the question of why? Even if you watch the behind the scenes, when Mark Wahlberg question Shyamalan on something, he is shut down in a passive-aggressive manner.
The next character on the chopping block is someone who many have deemed the funniest in the film is someone who I’m just going to call “The hot dog man” (Frank Collison). This guy really, REALLY likes hot dogs. It’s very clear that this is supposed to be the clichéd, crazy guy in every disaster film who’s wild theories are actually true, but no one is going to remember him for his wild theories, they’ll remember him as the character who told them hot dogs have a bad rap, a cool shape, and protein (actual lines from the film). I used to find him funny because of this meaningless dialogue, but now the knowledge that this is pointless outweighs the humor. I swear I he asks “you like hot dogs right?” one more time…. Yes, I like hot dogs!
I’ve talked a bit about the dialogue in this film, but in all honesty, what I’ve talked about is just the tip of the iceberg. I could find it in myself to possibly forgive the terrible dialogue if I recognized some good quality filmmaking decisions in The Happening, this is M. Night Shyamalan after all, whatever you say about him he does have a directorial identity, that vision is questionable sure but he does have a signature, how many directors can claim that? However, The Happening is Shyamalan at his worst because he seems to through his uniqueness out of the window and replaces it with the most cliched moments and shots imaginable. In a scene when Elliot and Julian separate, you get a slow-motion shot of Julian looking back at Elliot and you know at that moment the fate of the character. Also, this film has way too many shots of trees in the wind, in the context of the film they do make sense but they’re so bland it could even make Terrence Mallick fall asleep.
I hoped by re-watching The Happening in preparation for this I could find the funny in this disaster film (in the literal sense). but I think that ship has sailed. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to laugh at The Happening again. This film is a prelude to the eventual downfall of Shymalan. Luckily, he has clawed back credibility but how can you forget that he made The Happening. As ironic as it is, nothing really happens in The Happening and you are just on a pointless journey with these characters who talk as if they’ve only just learned to converse and defy human thinking with their stupidity.
We should have viewed this film as a sign of things to come. Sorry Last Airbender fans, we didn’t listen.