I really did like M. Night Shyamalan at one point, my The Village review notwithstanding. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs were all interesting and clever films, even if they sometimes lent themselves to parody. But my opinion of The Village is well-documented, and I didn’t even bother to see Lady in the Water. A fairy tale directed by an increasingly pretentious and angry director? Pass. But when he came back with The Happening, a film notable as much for its R rating as for its miserable title, I wondered if Night could really just get back to what he did best and make a scary movie. He had pulled off paranoia on a massive scale very effectively with Signs, and while the source of the “Happening” was cloaked in secrecy--albeit a secret broken on the internet about a whole freakin’ YEAR before the film was released-- this did look like a similar venture.
We open in Central Park, where a couple of women are reading books on a park bench. Almost immediately, one of the women notices that everyone else in the park has just frozen in place. She babbles on for a few seconds--”What’s that, Claire? Why isn’t anyone moving, Claire? Is something wrong, Claire? Tell me about the rabbits, Claire.”--while Claire herself gets all glassy-eyed for a moment before pulling out her hair pin and jamming it into her own neck. This would be very mysterious, except that she was reading Ethan Frome. Across town, at a construction site, a worker falls off the roof. As his fellow workers call for an ambulance, another guy falls. And another. And another. Are they all unsuccessful insurance salesmen? Hmmm…
Cut to Philadelphia high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg’s classroom. He’s taking suggestions from the students as to why honey bees are disappearing all over the country. When one of the students suggests global warming, he ponders the idea: “Temperature goes up a fraction of a degree, it disorients them.” Uh, Mark, I’m sorry to inform you of this, but we have this thing called weather, and a couple more things called day and night. Put together, they make it fairly common for the temperature to go up and down by fractions of degrees. I’m pretty sure that Papa Evolution would have smacked around honey bees a long time ago if they turned into blithering idiots every time it got a bit warmer.
His school quickly sends everyone home when word of the Central Park incident arrives, which everyone naturally thinks is a terrorist nerve gas attack. Mark decides to bring his estranged wife (Zooey Deschanel) along and join a fellow math teacher (John Leguizamo) in skipping town via train. Throughout the movie, Zooey keeps telling us that she doesn’t like to show her emotions, which gives her a convenient excuse to give a flat, embarrassed performance. Zooey’s introduced by the biggest shot of her worried face imaginable, which I’m sure she wasn’t happy about.
They get on a train bound for Harrisburg just in time, because in downtown Philadelphia, near a park, people do the whole freeze-then-emotionlessly-kill-themselves routine. They shoot themselves. They drive into poles. They walk into lion pens at the zoo and let the lions rip their arms off, which appear to have been very loosely affixed to their shoulders to begin with. The train carrying our intrepid heroes lets off in Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania because, supposedly, the conductors can’t establish contact with anyone. I’m surprised no one called them on this, considering that we quickly see that TV broadcasts are continuing uninterrupted, and that the whole phenomenon is limited to the Northeastern US, although it‘s spreading from the cities into smaller and smaller towns.
John Leguizamo leaves his little daughter, Jess, with Mark and Zooey so he can drive to Princeton to find his wife (bad idea), while Mark and Zooey get a ride from Uncle Rico, who’s heading into the country, where it’s presumably safer. Even more convenient, Uncle Rico is a wise old ex-hippie horticulturalist, so he can provide the explanation to the movie.
Better sit down for this one.
It’s trees. Trees are killing everyone, which explains why the gas attacks start in parks. You see, the trees are pissed off at the human race for polluting, and apparently they’re most pissed off at the Northeastern US for having a high density of nuclear power plants. So according to some highly dubious scientific theories that crazy Uncle Rico tries to slip by us quickly, the trees can communicate with each other, and have decided to release a gas that kills humans. I imagine their planning meetings went a little something like this:
With Andre Braugher as Mr. McFeely!
Birch: We gotta do something about all of these damned humans with their nuclear power.
Maple: Oh, I don’t know. Nuclear power is just about the safest and cleanest source of power in the world. It’s efficient, it's is almost impossible to experience a meltdown with modern core designs, it gives off hardly any carbon emissions (even though we love to eat sweet, sweet carbon dioxide ourselves), and all of the United States’ waste in fifty years of nuclear power is small enough to safely fit on a football field. Hell, the humans are even learning how to recycle that waste. We should probably encourage them to build more nuclear plants instead of environmentally destructive solutions like ethanol.
Birch: Hey Maple, why don’t you make like one of us and get out of here.
Birch: How do we get rid of these people, everyone? Put your trunks together and think.
Elm: Can we walk around and smash people like in that movie?
Ash: I don’t trust Cedar to not take my spot if I get up to crush puny humans for a while. We need to think of a solution where we don’t have to get off our lazy roots.
Pine: I know! Let’s release a nerve gas that kills humans but no other animal!
Birch: Can we really do that?
Pine: Of course we can! Uncle Rico in that movie about that thing we’re about to do said we could do it.
Elm: Don’t we need to test it out for a while? I mean, we have no way of studying a human or even knowing what they look like. Hell, I don’t even know how we know what a human is since we lack eyes or ears. Isn’t coming up with a gas to kill just them going to be complicated?
Pine: Are you questioning Uncle Rico? The man who raised Napoleon Dynamite? The man who gave birth to Benjamin Linus, the most awesome character in TV history?
Birch: I get it! We’ll do it!
Maple: Great, kill all the humans so they actually WILL be forced to let their nuclear plants melt down, so we’ll all die anyway. Good plan.
Birch: Shut up!
Maple: You know, the French use a ton more nuclear power than the US does. Why aren’t the Euro-trees mad?
Birch: SHUT UP!
"Christian? You've changed."
Mark and Zooey discover that they need to keep to ultra-small groups, because the trees don’t see humans as a threat when they’re in small groups, and won’t release the gas. Please ignore the fact that Mark, Zooey, Jess, and the two boys they’re traveling with make up five people, and that we’ve several times seen instances of isolated groups of five or fewer people getting killed off. Our heroes arrive at an empty country house, and knowing that the trees kill people in big groups, they decide to go to a town that’s lightly populated. Wait a minute. They’re alone. In a house in the country. And their goal is to avoid being around more people. So they’re going. To a place. With more people. Head. Exploding.
After they accidentally allow the two boys to get blown away by survivalist wackos in a boarded-up house, Mark and Zooey take Jess to somewhere much safer: a house with a crazy old lady. Here, the movie realizes that it’s actually moved far too fast, filling its time with action, even if most of that action was stupid. So it’s time to put an end to that! If Night is going to borrow heavily from the Spielberg version of War of the Worlds, he might as well imitate the Tim Robbins character while he’s at it. Mark and Zooey accept the woman’s hospitality/verbal abuse and spend the night, but in the morning, crazy old lady goes out into her garden and gets gassed. Mark boards up in the main house, while Zooey and Jess board up in a shed, realizing that now as few as one person can trigger the trees’ Human Detector. Realizing they‘re trapped, and giving up hope after a whopping two minutes, Mark and Zooey spit on John Leguizamo’s grave by taking his daughter outside with them so they can be physically together at the end of their lives. But nope. For all of Night’s gleeful grim carnage and radical environmentalist moralizing, he can’t bring himself to kill off our last three characters. In the three minutes between the time that the trees gassed the crazy old lady and the time that Mark and Zooey walk outside, the Photosynthian Liberation Organization pulled the plug on the whole gassing operation, deciding that it’s made enough of a point.
"Oh my God! It's that man again! The one with the heavy breathing, asking me if I can hear him now!"
Apparently not, considering that we flash forward to three months later and life in Philly has returned to normal, albeit with considerably fewer people. People are still driving cars and watching TV, so I guess we haven’t made a whole lot of concessions to the tree folk. The most we see to even indicate that millions of people died a few months ago is some cable talk show where an idiot professor is being interviewed to wrap up what Uncle Rico already told us forty minutes ago. As for our characters, Mark and Zooey have adopted Jess, and Zooey’s pregnant, so I guess their marriage problems are over. Awww. Mark also appears to be unemployed, though, since he drops her off at the school bus (the short bus, Night’s cute little way of reminding us that most of the innocent children DIED). And as an epilogue, we cut to a park in Paris where the Happening is starting all over again. Well, at least Night managed to account for my earlier crack about France having lots of nuclear power plants. Nice job.
Well, Night, I guess your message is that we should all just stop using power. Sure, modern technology and mass industralization is what allows us to have a film industry in the first place and to have the wealth to pay idiot directors millions for schlocky movies nobody wants to see. Maybe we can start saving power by not watching your movies on DVD. Them things don’t run on imagination, after all.
"You know, I'm starting to see why Mel wanted out."
But I think Night’s message is broader than that: perhaps he’s just trying to tell us that trees are f***ing a**h***s. Which is a pretty original message, but one that does not save this movie. Are we supposed to cringe or laugh when the movie draws tension from a little girl on a swingset hanging from the tree, one that we’re afraid is going to “go off”? The Happening doesn’t even rank well in the very limited pantheon of killer tree movies:
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2. Evil Dead series
3. The Wizard of Oz
5. The Happening
6. From Hell It Came
"Maude, I don't think we're wearing these 3D glasses correctly."
But if the whole message is that we should stop planting trees in our cities, because they’re ungrateful bastards, more powerful to you, M. Night Shyamalan. So whenever you chop down a tree for firewood, carve your initials into bark, or even just toss a crumpled-up piece of paper into the trash instead of the recycling bin, remember to flip it the bird and say, “What’s happening now, you son of a bitch?”