‘This film is hilarious. And it is not supposed to be’
Success or Failure: M. Night Shyamalan
The Happening, 2008
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley
An unknown, airborne virus is manipulating the brains of humans and forcing them to commit suicide, and our protagonists, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World), Alma (Zooey Deschanel), Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez, Crash), find themselves in a race away from all the infected areas of the north-east (starting in New York before spreading to Pennsylvania, where they’re living).
To this film’s credit, the action starts almost immediately. There isn’t much set-up, instead opting to have the opening characters be among the first to suffer the effects, meaning the whole film is at this same concerned pace. And when you take away the ridiculousness of the film itself, the idea behind it is quite intriguing, and there are moments where this is presented on the screen. However it is massively overshadowed by whatever this film is.
This film is hilarious. And it is not supposed to be.
Firstly, and it seems strange to say, but the suicides are hilarious. Firstly the way the bodies are falling off the building is quite comical, one guy sets a lawnmower off and lies down waiting for it, another sees one policeman shoot himself and drops the gun which is then picked up by another who does the same then another who does the same and another suicide sees an old lady smashing her face against windows and walls. The film is trying to be serious and scary with them, but the way they are presented it completely misses the mark. And it is not helped by scenes where Elliot is talking to a plant, randomly singing to prove he’s ‘normal’, people running away and cowering because wind is blowing grass, a guy talking about how hotdogs have a ‘bad rap’ despite having a ‘cool shape’ and ‘protein’ as well as a crazy old lady who calls lemonade a ‘lemon drink’ and invites a family of three for supper and a bed for the night, despite them not actually saying anything to her. All of these hilarious scenes completely contrast the shooting of two teenage boys.
While it doesn’t quite top the list of worst acted films (The Room currently holds that accolade to me), the acting in this film is terrible. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are both solid actors but between the script and the direction they just do not work here. Zooey Deschanel especially, as her acting for the most part is so wooden and lifeless, which isn’t truly beneficial to the film when they’re supposed to be protecting a little girl whose parents are missing. From the hot god guy to the army soldier to Ashlyn Sanchez (who had appeared in three films prior to The Happening, as well as several TV cameos, but retired from acting afterwards), every character is so poorly acted in this film.
Normally I don’t spoil many major events in film but for this paragraph I will be discussing the big Shyamalan twist as I feel it’s pretty universal knowledge, but if you don’t want to read it, simply skip ahead. The big villain in The Happening is the plants; they’re giving off toxins in the air which are killing humans because of the damage we are doing to the planet. And if this had of been a twist ending like that of The Sixth Sense it may have gotten a better reception, but it’s spoiled by the hot dog guy less than halfway through the film. He speculates it’s the plants and from there on Elliot is convinced it’s nature, going as far as to apologise and explain their actions to a house plant, but by the end when it’s confirmed to have been nature it just feels like a major let down. They could have speculated more that it was a terrorist attack (the initial diagnosis) or that it was a government-led disaster (which was briefly mentioned throughout the film) or that it was power plants (the next diagnosis issued after they ruled out terrorism) and saved the nature explanation to a latter part of the film. That way we could have thought back to the event targeting parks initially and soon spreading to less populated areas as being a sort-of well written progression for the enemy, instead we are given the explanation that it’s nature and suddenly the surprise is gone. Not every film needs a surprise ending, but this film has so much mystery early on about the cause of the event that it feels like it should have been explained fully in the ‘three months later’ scene (which features Jess carrying a Avatar bag onto a ‘2010’ school bus, which is probably a coincidence that M. Night Shyamalan’s next film, Avatar’s The Last Airbender, came out in 2010).
As aforementioned, there are some moments which capture the mood Shyamalan seems to be going for, but they are so far hidden away behind needless expositional news reports and comedic and nonsensical moments that when they do finally occur they are seen in the wrong light (such as the mass suicides being seen as humorous). Some scenes are nicely written, mainly those surrounding the mood ring, and the progression of the attacks retreating from major cities to smaller communities seems like a natural progression of what would happen if a airborne virus were to suddenly land on top of New York City (it is less sensible when you think why haven’t all of the plants attacked at the same time but that’s becoming too picky) and were to spread out. However there is just too much wrong with this film for them to be redeeming qualities. From its bad acting to its terrible screenplay and some shocking visuals (stop showing us pictures of trees rustling, it’s not scary or dramatic) it’s become a classical example of a film so bad it’s good.
When I first watched this film I watched it with a serious eye expecting a serious film and I hated it. But if you take that away, and see the film as a comical b-movie, despite them trying so hard to make it a serious thriller, then it becomes so much more enjoyable and hilarious.
Personal: * * * Acting: * Writing: * Presentation: * *