Today, I’ll be taking a look at what is arguably the low point of M. Night Shyamalan’s film career to date: 2008’s The Happening.
The plot of The Happening is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A science teacher, his wife, and a young girl struggle to survive a plague that causes those infected to commit suicide.
The Happening was written and directed by the one and only M. Night Shyamalan, whose whiplash-inducing up and down career has included films like The Sixth Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, After Earth, Signs, and Split.
The cast of the movie includes the likes of Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, Boogie Nights, The Fighter, The Other Guys), Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer, Elf, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Betty Buckley (Carrie, Wyatt Earp), John Leguizamo (John Wick, Bloodline, Super Mario Brothers, Spawn), and Alan Ruck (Twister, Speed, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
The cinematographer for The Happening was Tak Fujimoto, who also shot Devil, The Sixth Sense, Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, Pretty In Pink, and Where the Buffalo Roam, among others. The film’s editor was Conrad Buff IV, who has had credits that range from comedies like Monster Trucks, True Lies, and Space Balls to science fiction like The Abyss, Species, and Terminator 2.
The musical score for the film was composed by James Newton Howard, one of M. Night Shyamalan’s most frequent collaborators. On top of The Happening, he also did the music for the films Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler, Green Lantern, The Dark Knight, The Last Airbender, Lady In The Water, Dreamcatcher, Space Jam, and Waterworld.
Mark Wahllberg has since denounced The Happening, saying that he primarily took the job because of the opportunity to portray a science teacher, rather than a cop or a crook.
Amy Adams, who has since become one of the most acclaimed actresses in Hollywood, turned down the lead role in The Happening that eventually went to Zooey Deschanel.
The Happening was made on a production budget of $48 million, on which it took in a worldwide, lifetime gross of $163.5 million. While this was almost certainly profitable, the film was absolutely brutalized by critics and audiences alike: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.0/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 18% from critics and 24% from audiences.
One of the few positive reviews for The Happening interestingly came from one of the most well-regarded film critics of the time: Roger Ebert. In his review, he referred to the film as, among other things, “too thoughtful for the summer action season.” At the same time, he was prescient in predicting the film’s critical failure, writing:
I suspect I’ll be in the minority in praising this film. It will be described as empty, uneventful, meandering. But for some, it will weave a spell.
Watching the performances and deliveries in The Happening, it is hard to believe that the actors weren’t intentionally playing for comedy. In particular, Wahlberg’s performance is surreal in its hilarity: despite the tone around him, he managed to get a number of laughs out of me, despite the fact that there is no overt humor in the screenplay. His conversation with a plastic plant is honestly funnier than most actual comedy routines these days if you ask me.
One of the most obvious issues with The Happening is its underlying message. More specifically, the message is far too heavy-handed, and lacks the subtlety to make it truly powerful. That said, there is a kernel of an interesting idea within The Happening: plants fighting back against humans as an evolutionary defense sounds like the early makings for a pretty nifty creature feature, but it would have to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek to be effective.
One of the few positive things that can be said about The Happening is that it had an R-rating, and managed to use it to a decent effect. A number of the suicide scenes are impressively gory, and provide brief moments of loose entertainment in a generally very slow, plodding film.
Overall, The Happening had an interesting foundation in its idea, but a bunch of things clearly went wrong over the course of seeing that vision to the screen. While it is easy to place blame on the cast for their performances, I think that the writing is far more responsible for the film’s larger issues: Shyamalan might have considered having someone co-write, re-write, or at least punch up the script before handing it wholesale to his actors. However, I suspect Shyamalan was a bit overprotective of the screenplay, given he was also the film’s director. Generally, screenwriters are out the door early in production, and the director is free to alter the work to fit their vision after that. However, when the director and the writer are the same person, necessary screenplay cuts and changes may not happen out of a sense of pride and defensiveness. If there is anything that is known about M. Night Shyamalan at this point, it is that he is a man prone to pride and defensiveness, so the shoe does seem to fit.
As far as a recommendation goes, I think The Happening is a pretty fun ride, even though it is a bit slow in the pacing department. In particular, Wahlberg’s flailing in his role is captivating, like watching a cat try to get sticky tape off of its paw: the motions and expressions are excessive, while always being just a little too unnatural to be believed as earnest. The absolutely brutal death sequences in the movie add a little more entertainment as well, primarily due to their bizarre natures. That said, I think this is a movie best suited for bad movie fans: I’m not sure if there would be as much fun to sap out of the film for your typical, casual moviegoer.