Reviews

The Happening

The Happening features an effectively stylized physical environment: rarely have clouds drifting overhead and wind blowing through trees and a sunny day been filmed so ominously.


The Happening

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel. John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-06-13 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-06-13 (General release)
Website
[S]omething is happening here

But you don't know what it is,

Do you, Mr. Jones?

-- Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"

Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) certainly doesn't know what's happening. Neither does she want to know. When Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) tries to explain to her that an unknown lethal "event" is occurring across the east coast, she stops him short: "The world don't care about me, and I don't care about the world." Mrs. Jones lives alone in the remote wilds of Pennsylvania, out of place and out of time with the contemporary world. She is, unsurprisingly, bat-shit crazy to boot.

Alas, Elliot doesn't have much choice but to stick it out with Mrs. Jones. He and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), along with his best friend Julian's (John Leguizamo) daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), need a safe redoubt from that event he mentioned. After fleeing Philadelphia and shedding themselves of the rag-tag group of up-till-then survivors they met along the way, they now hope that Mrs. Jones' remote cottage might offer some sanctuary.

Even as they come to see that salvation is unlikely, they also learn that the effects of the happening are gruesome (there's been much ballyhoo in the press about the film's "R" rating, the first for one directed by M. Night Shyamalan). The event involves the dispersal of an unknown neurotoxin that attacks the chemicals in the brain responsible for self-preservation, so that infected individuals become immediately and spectacularly suicidal. I'm not so sure this explicitness helps The Happening much. The long scene of construction workers jumping to their deaths off of a Manhattan skyscraper is admittedly excellent; the thuds of their bodies shockingly literal, their shattered bodies and twisted limbs repugnantly real. The scene of a man offering himself to be devoured by lions in the Philadelphia Zoo, on the other hand, is notable only for its amateurish green-screen work, and the sight of a man lying down in front of an industrial lawnmower is just plain lame.

The film's non-gory suspense (one of Shyamalan's trademarks) is much creepier. The threat of a lethal atmospheric event allows the director to stylize the physical environment. Rarely have clouds drifting overhead and wind blowing through trees and a sunny day been filmed so ominously. The concept itself is effectively daunting: after all, how does one out-run the wind? It's a question that makes Elliot and Alma keenly anxious, even while they pointedly do not vocalize this concern to each other. They just keep running.

Along the way, they mull over what could possibly be going on. The couple, and the media to which they intermittently have access, initially surmise a terrorist attack. Of course. It's good old American hubris; we couldn't possibly have anything to do with this disaster, it must be the malicious intent of some foreign Other. This knee-jerk terrorist theory is quickly dismissed, however, leaving paranoid theories to kick into high gear. Could it be connected to honeybee colony collapse? Might is be some side effect of the dozen or so nuclear power plants that dot the east coast?

The movie hints as well at other, less environmental degradation-related explanations. Might this mass suicide be a mutation of cellular suicide ("programmed cell death," to the scientists)? Maybe this is nature's answer to overpopulation, thinning the herd that is depleting the earth's resources. I can imagine a neoconservative argument that the event is the result of cultural anomie; without strict norms and morals, anything can result, even mass suicide. It might be no coincidence, as Elliot repeatedly repeats, that the outbreak started in urban centers; maybe New Yorkers and Philadelphians just had enough, their drastic actions inspiring a vast swath of Americans to follow their suicidal lead.

All possibilities, however half-baked or far-fetched, are held up for consideration by Elliot. A high school science teacher, he's dedicated to empiricism and rationality; we see him drilling the steps of the scientific method into his students' heads at the start of the film. The trouble is, science can't explain everything. When one of Elliot's students, Jake (Robert Lenzi), hypothesizes that honey bee colony collapse is simply "an act of nature" that "we'll never fully understand," you suspect that Elliot's convictions will soon to be shaken to the core.

This being a Shyamalan movie, however, such uncertainty cannot stand, and so Elliot emerges with his faith in empiricism intact. We have to have the "twist" after all, and in this Shyamalan has become slave to his own master trope. Unfortunately, as in all of his previous films, the surprise is less than satisfying and the nature of the "event" much less provocative than the many other possible explanations posed by the rest of The Happening.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.