10YA’s resident M. Night Shyamalan scholar Stevi Costa takes the side of the plants and considers the troubling anthro-centric status quo at the center of the “pretty-good-idea-very-poorly-executed” eco-thriller The Happening.
The Happening was the last M. Night Shyamalan film I saw in theatres, which means it is also the last one I will review for 10YA for quite some time. I didn’t see The Last Airbender, After Earth, or The Visit. I don’t think my choice to jump ship from the S.S. Shyamalan was the fault of The Happening, although it was not well-received and, in many ways, deserves the ire launched in its general direction. Those all came out while I was in grad school, and in grad school I missed a lot of things. I will see them eventually, as I am a completist, and there’s a renewed interested in Shyamalan thanks to the success of Split, so apparently we’ll all just keep going back to the same cycles of behavior, over and over again.
In case you jumped ship far earlier than I did, let me remind you of the plot of The Happening: it’s the one where the plants are killing people with some sort of organic neurotoxin. In 2008, I think this was the part that people found to be the most stupid aspect of the film. In 2018, I will disagree with that. The core idea that the natural world has had it up to here with humanity and is ready to divest itself of several thousand carbon units sounds just fine to me. We know far more now than we did then about climate change and the exceedingly destructive impact late capitalism has had on the environment. Although the film’s ideas around this are speculative and wrapped up in a bunch of junk science spewed by a high school teacher who isn’t especially good at his job, I don’t disagree with the central premise. In fact, I agree with the plants. There are too many carbon units on this planet. These plants are the most sympathetic villains in any M. Night Shyamalan movie, even as they are perpetuating genocide.
The stupid parts of this movie are everything else. The script is so devoid of life that all the conversations sound like they were lifted from The Room and are simply being read by slightly better actors. But even as I say that, the acting in this movie is also truly bad. The only person with any sort of liveliness is John Leguizamo and I adored any time he was on screen. He wasn’t doing much, but he has a screen presence that elevated the stilted dialogue in ways that Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel were unable to do. Deschanel is trying her damnedest by making some choices with this script, but these are also categorically bad choices that lead her to give a performance where she’s on the edge of tears the entire time for no reason.
Wahlberg’s first scene sets him up to be a “fun” teacher, but every other aspect of his character is the antithesis of fun. Ostensibly, he is the antithesis of fun because there is some icy strain in his marriage to Deschanel, which he and Leguizamo both expect is because she’s having an extramarital affair. You would think that might indeed make for some great tension, but because we know nothing about these characters besides Wahlberg’s job, that Deschanel sometimes gets phone calls from some person named Joey, and that Leguizamo has a young daughter, everything falls flat. There is no room for these characters to grow or develop because they’re not characters at all. They’re not even archetypes, which allow you to hang some sort of feeling onto a representative idea rather than a real person. But you have neither round characterization here nor archetype, leaving you with effectively meaningless dialogue that only serves as exposition. As a result, you don’t care about anyone in this movie. We are supposed to root for Deschanel and Wahlberg’s survival, and to hope that making it through whatever is “happening” with the plants will mend the strain in their romantic relationship, but you just can’t. These characters suck. There is no reason we should want them to live. I’m 100% with the plants on this.
And perhaps the dialogue and characters are so poorly wrought in this film because Shyamalan wants us to side with the plants. Shyamalan’s camerawork makes the plants look especially lovely, from the first shot in Central Park to the rolling fields of the Pennsylvania countryside. The film is lush and green and golden and gorgeous. Cities are gray and static and as boring as the characters in this film. But the land moves and bends and is active and alive. In trying to make the pastoral seem creepy or threatening by showing strong winds rustling through tall grasses and leaves, Shayamalan has actually emphasized the natural beauty of the setting. We, and the characters in the film, are always somewhat awestruck by the surrounding flora. I know it’s supposed to read as horror, but it is effectively the sublime.
When we see humans behaving strangely and suddenly exerting impulses to self-harm in these natural settings, that’s what seems odd and unsettling—not the plants. The plants are right where they should be. It’s the humans that are in the wrong place. These scenes of self-harm are the goriest of any Shyamalan movie: a young lady stabs herself in the throat with a hairpin, construction workers walk off high beams at their jobsites to thud onto the sidewalks below, a man starts up an electric mower and then lays his body down in front of it. Suicide is so taboo in our culture that we aren’t keen on talking about it, and so the idea of mass or public suicide is in and of itself truly unsettling. But because I read the cinematography of this film as privileging an eco-centric point of view, I think these scenes are doubly unsettling because they emphasize human bodies as mere set-dressing. To an anthro-centric viewer (which all moviegoers are by default), this should feel weird to us. And indeed it does. These scenes make the film’s central conceit work, and they are very compelling to watch. They are, without question, my favorite parts of the film.
But I shouldn’t want the humans to die, right? Except that I do because, once again, the mass suicides are filmed with such distance and isolation that they satisfy the viewer’s desire for horror/terror. We do not know any of the victims of these mass suicide scenes. Save for the two young women on the park bench at the opening of the film who sparsely converse before one stabs herself in the neck, we merely see bodies freeze and falter, or fall from rooftops. We do not know how these people are. They are blank slates devoid of character. As a result, the viewer is denied empathy with these people. Even when the construction workers on the ground show grief over the loss of their first colleague, this humane moment falls away when the camera switches to the fantastic shot of other construction workers sailing off the rooftop to their deaths. We see these as a string of isolated incidents, rather than the effects of genocide and terrorism. Despite my professed love of John Leguizamo, I have to admit that I also felt very little when he succumbs to the neurotoxin and takes his life. And if we can’t care about the immanently loveable John Leguizamo, there truly must be something wrong with all of us. Or at least with Shyamalan’s script.
In my 2018 viewing of this film, I am fairly convinced that we are meant to side with the plants, and decouple ourselves from our anthro-centric worldview to sympathize with species that were here long before us and are merely trying to defend themselves in the only way they know how. But it’s pretty hard to sell a movie where you actually root for the decimation of humankind, and this is where the paper-thin plot about the strain in Deschanel and Wahlberg’s marriage comes into play. The timeline of the “happening” is roughly 24 hours, and within that 24 hours, Deschanel and Wahlberg learn to communicate better with one another across actual distances, which symbolically closes the perceived distance between them. By this I mean they have a conversation about Wahlberg’s love of mood rings through—I shit you not—the communication tubes between the main house and a secret underground railroad tunnel. They grow closer during their 24-hour journey away from Philadelphia and into rural Pennsylvania—heading deeper into the heart of the natural world, somewhat unaware that this is the very thing that could claim their lives at any minute. They must learn to communicate better with each other during this journey because they end up caring for a total of three children, making them responsible for lives other than their own. After Leguizamo defects to go back to the city to find his wife (whom he knows is certainly dead), Deschanel and Wahlberg become the guardians of Leguizamo’s young daughter, and eventually two young boys also join their group (until they are brutally murdered not by plants, but by other humans, in a scene that is entirely unnecessary). By giving this couple children to care for, Shyamalan attempts to amplify the stakes of their survival. Children in catastrophe and apocalypse narratives (of which this is both) signal a potential future. No one wants a child to die because of the potential for life, and so we do kind of want Deschanel and Wahlberg to make it only so Leguizamo’s daughter won’t be all alone if she survives whatever is “happening.”
In making this move, though, Shyamalan creates an ersatz family unit that’s centered on the value of reproductive futurity, which is arguably the very problem the plants have with humans in the first place. The plants, Wahlberg deduces, aren’t interested in killing off small groups of people. The plants only project their safeguard neurotoxin at large groups, thereby saving smaller groups. Presumably, a single person would be A-OK in this plant logic. A single person can’t do much harm. But a group of people? A heteronormative family unit with the potential to reproduce and multiply? Plant logic says that shit’s no good. So if I have spent 90 minutes agreeing with the plants and subscribing to plant logic, why on earth should Deschanel and Wahlberg’s story wrap up a few months after the events of the “happening” with Deschanel discovering she is pregnant? Why on earth would these people, who just went through a theoretically harrowing 24 hours in which they witnessed the deaths of friends, strangers, and a couple of young boys for no reason, and who know that the reason for those deaths is that plants are pretty fucking sick of humanity’s shit right now, make the choice to procreate? Why isn’t caring for Leguizamo’s orphaned daughter enough? Why not make life better for those who are currently alive than continuing to project hope onto an imagined future via reproduction?
The choice to end the narrative this way returns to the anthro-centric status quo. Perhaps it’s meant to signal that humanity isn’t going to change its ways. More people will always be born. The planet will continue to be grossly overpopulated. Everyone is fucked, so just go ahead and live life however you want. But that attitude makes me as a viewer feel particularly hopeless about humanity’s survival. If no one is actively trying to make things better, why should we have any hope at all for change? For survival? If the humans in this movie continue the same status quo patterns that have lead to the events on this film in the first place, then why should we have hope for any kind of future at all? And if we do hope, it seems there’s no point. The plants will rise again, as the final shot of an imminent Parisian “happening” indicates. So, too, will this cycle continue.
Ultimately, the final notes of this film indicate a kind of hopelessness for the fate of the planet that undercuts the supposed hopefulness of the Deschanel-Wahlberg heteronormative futurity plot. No one learns anything. No one makes an effort to change their relationship to the natural world. Although the “happening” is still discussed on the news, the humans who survive the film just go on living in exactly the same way they did before. They continue to grow the population without thought or consequence. Plants continue to try to protect themselves as best they can.
What were we, as viewers, supposed to take away from our 90 minutes with this pretty-good-idea-very-poorly-executed movie? Nothing, I guess. It seems we all just went back to our lives as if nothing ever happened.
- Wow, I really did not expect this film to make me feel so fatalistic and unhopeful. But truthfully, I vacillate between believing in humanity’s potential for goodness and witnessing the consequences of our rampant, unchecked, destructive individualism. I am hopeful for a sustainable future for all life, but not if people act like the people in this movie. And even in dystopian narratives, characters are propelled forward by the principle of hope: hope to escape, hope to heal, hope to mend whatever is broken. I think that’s why The Happening is so unsatisfying in this regard: the hope is misplaced.
- Marky Mark’s science teacher character knows things about biology, but also believes in auras and mood rings. Public education also leaves me feeling hopeless.
- Oh my god. The mood ring. I truly can’t believe Shyamalan was like, “Everything we need to know about this character is signified in his mood ring. This will be enough.”
- Shyamalan tries to show Marky Mark is a “fun” teacher by having him “hide” from the principal when she comes into the room. Only a mediocre white man could feel so absolutely secure in a teaching job that he’d pull something like that.
- Want a great example of how awful the dialogue is in this film? I give you this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zD1WTXRaAbU
- I did like the scene where Marky Mark has a conversation with a houseplant, though. It was very silly.