A reappraisal of a much-maligned masterpiece
May 9, 2019
You know the meme. Mark Wahlberg, brow comically furrowed, looks out across a grassy field with an expression that must appear in the “What Not to Do” section of an acting textbook.
What you might not know is that the image comes straight from—according to the hivemind of internet film critics—the worst movie ever: M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.”
Shyamalan truly disturbed his audience—not through conventional horror techniques—but by messing with cinematic grammar itself. And while I can sympathize with the disturbed critics’ kneejerk reactions, I can’t penalize a film for translating its disquieting subject matter into stilted imagery and twisted editing logic.
The film follows science teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), as they try to protect themselves and a young girl (Ashlyn Sanchez) from a “Bird Box”-style epidemic of mass suicides.
Despite the poor critical response to the film during its initial release over a decade ago, in 2019, “The Happening ” stands out for its genuinely unsettling imagery and Shyamalan’s tight, tense filmmaking.
After the wash of his previous picture, “Lady in the Water,” Shyamalan—the promised yet ill-fated Hitchcock of our time—needed another hit in the vein of “The Sixth Sense” to reassert his status as our generation’s preeminent, psychological suspense filmmaker.
With significant studio-backing and his first R-rating, Shyamalan seemed poised to take his violent and frantic visions to new, unrestrained charts in “The Happening.”
But when the film crashed into theaters in summer 2008, it was met with swift, crippling derision. Its blundering humor and uncanny style fell flat in the public eye. Film critic Ty Burr wrote “you feel like you’re not watching the end of the world but the end of a career.”
Echoing Burr, Tom Long at Detroit News simply added “it’s downright stupid.”
Today, the film boasts a whopping 18 percent on “Rotten Tomatoes”—supposedly securing its status as a certifiably rotten movie. But this low score—a grave marker for any other movie—stands as a testament to the success of “The Happening.”
Look no farther than the Central Park-set opening scene for evidence of Shyamalan’s intentionally uncanny approach.
First we hear a scream, but we don’t see a body. The camera pans around the park, business as usual, until we realize nobody’s moving. Someone starts walking backward. We hear people tearing at their throats…
After marinating in this uncomfortable collage of human suffering, Shyamalan finally shows us our first bits of blood as a woman plunges her hair pin into her neck. The scene’s a mess of disturbing ideas, and Shyamalan’s withholding of them makes the scene all the more uncomfortable as we anticipate the carnage.
We’re not used to consuming action scenes in such a disjointed fashion, so this opening scene comes off as abrasive and easy to write off. But the messiness is the point. It’s unnatural filmmaking and it captures the unsettling circumstances of uncontrollable mass suicide.
Critics rightly point to odd scenes— such as an early moment in a classroom where Wahlberg unironically tells a hotshot student that his “face is perfect”—as examples of Shyamalan’s utter failure to capture natural human interactions. But what’s natural about the mass-suicide movie?
For audiences just starting to grow accustomed to the pessimistic, vanilla snark of the Marvel monopoly, these moments of awkward, offbeat humor often elicit those uncomfortable half-laughs that get caught in the throat like a swallowed hunk of gum, but they add to the uncanny atmosphere.
Just like the plot, which features plants—the epitome of nature—turning against humans, Shyamalan’s stilted humor grinds against the grain, a perfect coupling of form and function.
Fundamentally throwing off the audience, Shyamalan also completely overturns the generic conventions of disaster movies in “The Happening” by starting with what in any other movie would be the big climactic action scene and downsizing to a more intimate and uncomfortable close. It’s like an experimental French director remade “Independence Day.”
Shyamalan assaulted our sheltered moviegoing sensibilities with “The Happening,” and we responded with revulsion. That means the next 20 “Geostorm” sequels are on us.
Contact Brandon Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.