You know your movie’s in trouble when your opening credits are identical to a Neil Breen film.
The title of this movie alone should be a pretty good indicator of what you’re in for. The Happening (2008), both as a title and as a film, is so simple, so straightforward, and yet so vague at the same time. It’s a movie about a thing that happens. The thing is never really completely defined or explained. Most films aspire to depict an event of some kind, but usually titles are more creative and descriptive than simply saying ‘An Occurrence’ or ‘The Circumstance’.
Before The Happening happens, we open in Central Park, New York City, where a girl sitting on a park bench with her friend has a hard time remembering what page she’s on in the book she’s reading.
Even though the book is open and right in front of her.
Then the friend, who isn’t reading the book, somehow knows exactly what is ‘happening’ in the story she isn’t reading. When the girl loses her place again, a moment later, her friend looks up to see what appears to be time standing still. Humans stand motionless, inanimate.
Yet another connection with I Am Here…. Now.
A moment later people begin walking backwards. The girl watches from her park bench as the frozen people reanimate, only to begin a bizarre suicide spree. People kill themselves in unique ways, culminating when her friend, while still holding her book, stabs herself in the neck with a hairpin. The Happening has started to happen, and right off the bat every character seems spaced out and distant, complacent and uncaring. I think these are the characters I relate to most.
Speaking of spaced out, next we meet our protagonist, Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher in Philadelphia who teaches his students that science isn’t real. Played exceptionally woodenly by Mark Wahlberg, an actor who chooses to tone up his voice and deliver every line with this strange inhaled whisper that doesn’t come close to imitating human speech. On the surface he’s the ‘hip’ teacher who tries too hard to relate to the cool kids, but outside the classroom, he’s plagued with conflict and marital troubles. That instantly makes him interesting, right?
Elliot’s wife Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel, has an undeniably exhilarating life. She sits at home all day staring straight ahead with a blank look in her eyes, awkwardly avoiding phone calls from someone named ‘Joey’ who she had a snack with once. When she does talk, she sounds like a child in an adult’s body, with fluctuating needs and wants from moment to moment.
Following the incident in New York, the government rounds up all the non-existent evidence to come to a questionable conclusion: the mass suicides were caused by an airborne chemical developed by terrorists. As a result, schools are shut down in Philadelphia and everyone is encouraged to evacuate the city. Elliot gathers up his wife, his best friend Julian (played by Super Mario Bros‘ Luigi, John Leguizamo himself), and Julian’s young daughter Jess, and they flee the city on a train. Ironically, Leguizamo outperforms Wahlberg in multiple scenes in this movie. He seems more sincere, and actually appears legitimately concerned about his best friend’s failing marriage. A surprisingly decent effort from our old friend, Luigi!
He dies though, just like all the interesting characters in the film. Momma mia!
Now as thin as the premise is, I will give the film credit where it’s due. There is one impressive shot in this movie that’s really well executed. When the happening reaches Philadelphia, another series of suicides occur, and we follow a police officer’s gun as it passes from one person to the next. Don’t get too excited though, this 30 second shot was the only thing I found visually striking.
I love watching choreographed blood puddles form.
Meanwhile, when the train stops dead in the middle of nowhere, a faux-frustrated Wahlberg and his family find themselves stuck in a small town diner. While they struggle to plan their next move, the true nature of the ‘terrorist chemical’ is revealed. A local news report on the diner’s TV explains what’s actually going on. Nature is fighting back against it’s worst enemy – humans. We’ve carelessly polluted the earth for so long that the only solution is for the plants to rapidly evolve and eradicate us. Trees and bushes team up to send invisible toxins into the air to eliminate the threat. According to the news report, the safest way to avoid the plants is to stay in sparsely populated areas.
The plant attack is all confirmed of course, when Wahlberg and co. hitch a ride to safety with the world’s biggest Hot Dog enthusiast / peeping tom. Credited only as ‘Nursery Owner,’ this character is a hippie who claims all different species of plants can communicate with each other, just like humans can. He’s such an odd and memorable weirdo, I find myself wishing we were watching his life story rather than the whiny Moore family.
Actually, I would love to watch the comedic potential of a film about the misadventures of Hot Dog Guy and the cowardly soldier who we meet next. Private Auster is a panicking, prancing young man in a soldier’s uniform who hobbles frantically when he runs. Between his mannerisms and voice, this guy does not carry himself as someone who’s had military training.
It’s a match made in heaven.
Up until this point in the film, I’d say the movie has been pretty… bland. It’s a thriller with no intensity that features a few quirky characters along the way. By now the pressure and strain has been building up on this weak premise and it snaps beyond repair. As Anakin Skywalker might say, this is where the fun begins. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid ruining the surprises, but next we get scenes where people try to outrun the wind, Mark Wahlberg begging for a second to think, children being gunned down by shotgun blasts, and crazy old ladies who treat house guests like they’re homicidal maniacs.
The most comedic and nonsensical scene occurs when the Moore family take shelter from the evil breeze in a model home. Elliot Moore decides the best way to stay alive is to talk to the plants. To negotiate with them. To reason with them, ‘in a very positive manner, giving off good vibes.’ Now even if Hot Dog Guy’s claims were true (spoilers: he died, RIP), even if plants could speak to each other to orchestrate an attack on humanity, they obviously aren’t speaking English. Moore is supposed to be a scientist, a logical guy who believes in fact-based evidence. Why then, would he ever think talking to a tree would benefit his situation? Of course, this is the movie’s attempt at a joke, since the tree turns out to be plastic. It’s still funny, but not the way Shyamalan intended.
Still a better love story than Twilight.
After a series of nomadic misadventures, The Happening stops happening rather abruptly, and in the most convenient way possible. Elliot and Alma are separated in two buildings, their only means of communication a pipe in the wall, trapped inside by the deadly wind that’s out to get them. So they’re forced to sit and wait for their impending doom. They both reconcile all their issues, and they decide they don’t want to spend their final moments apart. So they go outside at 9:58 am for a final loving embrace. We learn soon after that the event stopped suddenly just before that, for no reason, at 9:27 am.
The Happening shares a lot of commonalities with Birdemic, most notably being the theme of careless humans polluting the planet, with the planet evolving to stave off the threat. After killing a handful of people, nature just gives up its war on humanity and ceases the attack. At least The Happening attempts to justify this sudden end with the idea that it was a preemptive strike, nature’s warning for us to smarten up or it will wipe everyone out. At the end of the day, it’s really just an excuse for a happy ending with our characters though.
At least Birdemic made it’s pro-nature villains more visibly cinematic than ‘the wind.’