A couple of months ago, word started getting around about Martijn Hendriks’ project Give Us Today Our Daily Terror; a project which removed all of the the birds from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There may be plenty of cynics in regard to Hendriks’ project, but if there will ever be a modern film that is some sort of equivalent Hendriks’ experimentation, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is it. I don’t know anyone who is calling Shyamalan’s newest (and best) film experimental, yet its attempts to create a monster movie without a physical monster is as conceptual a concept as you will ever find in a Hollywood film. This drastic change from the Shyamalan norm comes as a welcome surprise, considering the utter debacle that was Lady in the Water. While most people continue to treat Shyamalan as a critical punching bag (admittedly, I have not been a fan of of any of his work since the mild accomplishments in the first half of Unbreakable) The Happening works to shift expectations and create a new mode of address that can lead to a form of success, not just for Shyamalan but for the human species as well. The Happening is completely bizarre, smart, and shockingly enjoyable from start to finish.
One of the main objections to The Happening has been its “awful” script and laughable dialogue. While I don’t find much of a debate on whether or not the comedy is purposeful (however if you want to debate that feel free), the better question to ask may be why this approach was taken. Although I am no auteurist, after the deadly (hysterical) seriousness of Lady in the Water and the backlash that created, Shyamalan clearly needed to go for a different effect and it is important to think about The Happening in that context. Led by the strong performance by Mark Wahlberg as Elliot Moore, a witty high school science teacher, The Happening uses character tropes to create comedy in the midst of chaos. Each problem that Elliot encounters, whether inside or outside of school, is solved as a scientific puzzle. When mass suicides begin in New York City near Central Park, the location becomes the key to Elliot in unlocking this scientific mystery. Meanwhile, his starry-eyed wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) dodges questions about a man named Joey, while Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher, confronts his problems with statistics and math riddles. Math gives Julian hope that his wife may not be affected by whatever is causing the suicides, whether it be terrorists or the environment itself.
These one-note characteristics are the kind of quirkiness that The Happening becomes invested in and helps the film not be overbearingly depressing. After seeing Suicide Club (2002), it should be fairly evident that mass suicides are not typically material for comedic fodder. The Happening, however, finds a comedic charm that builds suspense and carries the film through long sections where very little happens. Some goofy secondary characters, obsessed with hot dogs and lemon drinks, continue to control a bizarre atmosphere that can quickly transition from one mood to the next, or to be both at the same time. Its comedy, rooted in the markedly stilted dialogue, may make The Happening seem laughably bad but, in helping to subvert expectations, the dialogue is a major factor in creating the film’s strange aesthetic which is the key to its enjoyment and success.
Part of what makes The Happening so fascinating is its willingness to be completely aimless in a genre that is driven by the question “what will happen next.” The Happening removes the word next in this question, leaving the audience on a frustrating path to nowhere. Elliot, Alma, and other survivors move from town to town wondering if the disease will hit them. They work to comprehend how and why the attacks happen, although very little is understood. Just when it seems like Elliot has begun to figure something out, the storm of death stop as quickly as they started. Incorporating news footage and analysis of the carnage makes clear the parallels between the events and global warming, where nature is seeking revenge on those who have abused it, yet any sort of Big Question remains unasked, much less unanswered. In a genre so reliant on posing and answering questions for plot progression, The Happening continually defies these modes of address and simply lets its events happen. Although some sort of answer is unearthed and a cornball conclusion ties up events for Elliot and Alma, The Happening again makes a shift to the horror genre in its final moments. While this decision may get some chuckles for being typically mundane, the scene reaffirms the message and reconnects Shyamalan, at last, to a set of expectations. The Happening shows that these expectations can be toyed with, but never completely overcome.
The Happening is being met with some of the harshest criticism Shyamalan has ever received. Only Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review mentions the difficult position Shyamalan has place himself in as a “would-be auteur”, deeming the film “marked for failure even before it had a chance to fail- or succeed.” As off-kilter and strange as every element of the The Happening is, each step is taken to match the cynicism of a public that feeds on publicized failure. The purposeful comedy in The Happening is as assured as its quiet thrills and deliberately unsubtle message. Shyamalan’s previous works may have him set up for disaster (just as The Happening contends the people’s relationship with our planet has lent itself to the same result); however, in establishing a new mode of monster movie without the expected Shyamalan aesthetic (which may be leading to its mostly disastrous reviews), The Happening stands out as a bold success in both style and substance. Only by drastically playing with, changing, and challenging preconceived expectations, The Happening has taken a seemingly disastrous project (a monster movie without a physical monster) marked it for success.
by James Hansen