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The Happening

Movie title: The Happening (2008)
Grade: F (0 stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, Jose L. Rodriguez, John Rusk, M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg “Elliot Moore,” Zooey Deschanel “Alma Moore,” John Leguizamo “Julian,” Ashlyn Sanchez “Jess,” Betty Buckley “Mrs. Jones,” Spencer Breslin “Josh,” Robert Bailey Jr. “Jared”
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Summation: A couple and a young girl seek safety as mysterious deaths occur all around them.
Spoilers ahead: Yes

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M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening just wasn’t happening. Whether you are a Shyamalan fan or not doesn’t matter. The guy’s had some phenomenal movies. There was The Sixth Sense (1999), the underappreciated Unbreakable (2000), and to a lesser degree, The Village (2004). These comprise his better films. Signs (2002) would have been included in this list had it not succumbed to multiple fatal plot-hole deaths—aliens can’t be allergic to water and yet fly who knows how many light-years to eat human beings who are 90% water, nor can they be kept out by primitive humans hunkered down behind wood.

Shyamalan is a gushing wellspring of creativity and great ideas, but his besetting cinematic sin is that he can’t always get his ideas developed into successful movies. He gets hung up in the logistics department. It’s one thing to have a great idea and another thing to develop it.

The Happening was based on a superb idea. As a repercussion of man’s polluting the earth and destroying his environment, the defense mechanisms in the plants unite to fight off a debasing mankind. As we shall see, the plot has some flaws, but basically it’s clever. The movie has a brilliant concept behind it and a message.

The problem with movies with messages is that they usually get the message out at the expense of being a good movie. Such movies lose touch with the human experience and become too idealistic, which is sad in this case, because the plot is Alfred Hitchcock-worthy material and could have had something made of it.

Where did The Happening go wrong? A better question is, where did it not go wrong. The movie begins with masses of people in Central Park in New York City indiscriminately killing themselves. As wonderful as that sounds, from the very beginning scene, nothing is right.

The movie opens with a woman who proceeds to stab herself in the throat with her hairpin. What does the woman next to her do? Scream in horror? Gasp in shock? No, she uneventfully looks away as though she forgot she was on camera. The scene wasn’t done right, and many scenes in the movie suffer from the same.

The initial twenty minutes of the movie is the best part as people go about killing themselves en masse and no one knows why. I almost wanted to kill myself while watching this, but I digress!

The acting is atrocious. Even a normally competent Mark Wahlberg doesn’t fair well in this bad theatrical endeavor. The dialogue is flat and the production quality so poor that nothing ever seems as real or as dramatic as it should. In place of quality, we get a distraught military man running around like a scared, gallivanting girl, annoying kids (one of whom I was delighted to see get shotgun-blasted off a porch), and comically cruddy love scenes.

Mark Wahlberg is a high school teacher who is lecturing to his students when it becomes apparent that people are dying in Central Park. The professor stops his cheesily-scripted lecture and sends the students home. Gathering his family, and later one other girl, he heads out of town, assuming that everything that has happened is the result of a terrorist attack. It isn’t until later in the film when a hippie suggests that the reason for the deaths is because humankind is hurting Mother Earth, and she’s lashing back by disabling the body’s ability to preserve itself.

After a while of running away from attacks all around them, to safeguard themselves, it is decided by Elliot (Wahlberg’s character) that they travel in smaller groups due to the fact that most of the deaths occur in more dense gatherings. The movie drudges along until they meet up with a kooky old woman living in a house off the main roads who subsequently becomes a victim of the hostile plants herself. There they wait until the plants let up. The plants just stop. Finally, America realizes that the plants were sending them messages to straighten up and fly right and start thinking about the environment.

If you are one of those odd few who find yourself repulsed by the message of the movie and happen not to believe that humans are harming the environment, take heart because this movie is such a lost cause that it isn’t to be respected anyway.

It is a shame, nonetheless, to have seen such a good idea go to waste like it did here. With better writing, it could have gone far, though it would need some reworking. You can’t make much sense out of the idea of plants sending out a “warning” to humans to stop destroying them; why haven’t the plants been attacking lumberjacks when they went to work since before recorded time? What about homeowners using weed killer? Wouldn’t local plant life interpret those actions as hostile and start killing in self-defense?

And cleaning up the environment is a time-consuming job. How would the plants know to send a warning strike and not go all out in killing us since global pollution would still be a threat to them? Would you send out a warning strike and then choose to stop if my hands were still wrapped around your throat as I continued to squeeze?

Maybe it would have been better to have the humans fight them off. We do, according to the religious beliefs of many, have dominion over the plants, no? And wouldn’t the message of the plot go further if it happened that man defeated these formidable plants in demonstration of the destructive nature of our species? That’s what we humans do, being at the top of the food chain, isn’t it? Our big-brained capacity (through industry) has put us at odds with nature.

This is the type of bad movie that you pretty much have to see to get an impression of the kind of bad that it is. I can describe it, but that only goes so far. It gets an F, but I must confess that had the plants succeeded in killing everyone off halfway in, I would have been tempted to give it an A!

(JH)

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