The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan has a trail of films under his belt which are known for their shocking twists and unusual situations. For a writer and director of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and thriller genre works, this isn’t anything unexpected. However, this film cast aside the usual turnabout at the end. Nobody turned out to be a ghost. The antagonist wasn’t defeated by water. A main character didn’t turn out to be the villain. While this in itself is a breath of fresh air for the formulaic nature of Shyamalan’s writing, he seems to have cast out any sort of dramatic tension along with it.

Tension

The film follows a man and his wife as they attempt to escape the Northeastern United States. A wave of strange occurrences have begun in which people begin to kill themselves seemingly at random. Everyone immediately considers this to be the work of terrorists, suspecting that they’ve released a neurotoxin. This is not the case. For some reason, plants have begun to release such a substance. The main character, a high school science teacher, deduces this and this helps him and his loved ones escape the worst of it.

The problem for the film is that because he realizes this so early, and because the effects of the substance are so potent and immediate, that they must elude it at all costs. There can be no flirtation with it, so the characters have only the briefest of run ins with the release of the toxin. Usually this is depicted as a strong wind effecting trees and bushes. This wind, it should be added, was probably created using helicopters, which are audible throughout these sequences, despite the fact there are none around in the film.

Since the characters never really come into contact with the substance, the most ‘terrifying’ parts of the film become witnessing the deaths of incidental characters, some of whom are simply murdered. While it is very unsettling to see someone kill themselves, almost more so than watching a murder, watching characters you’ve known for seconds or minutes die doesn’t push the film forward at all. Because their behavior is so far outside the norm, the audience can’t even relate to them as they would the deaths of innocent bystanders in other films who are get stomped on by robots or killed in a bomb explosion. This further dulls the dramatic effect of the kind of deaths we see in this film.

Unusual Situations

One of Shyamalan’s signatures is very unusual character presentation. While his main characters are quirky to a fault, pushing them nearly outside the realm of believability, his incidental characters are often totally insane and can distract from the film further. The best examples in this film come from 2 specific characters. The first is a man who gives them a ride a good portion of the way out of the danger zone. He is a lover of plants who lives in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, appreciates hot dogs for their ‘fun shape’ and protein. His purpose appears to be comic relief and is mostly benign. Despite the curious nature of him and his wife, they grasp hands in their final scene. This was the only thing about them that didn’t alienate the audience or the characters. Quirky is one thing, bizarre is another.

The other example is a paranoid reclusive woman who lives in a small house in the country. She has ‘no contact’ with the outside world, but yet has access to food and energy. It is plausible that she grew her own vegetables and maybe her own fruit. But the fact that she served her guests meats and cookies suggests that she has access too foodstuffs made by other people. In the dinner scene, she slaps the hand of the girl who is accompanying the main characters. This is foreshadowing to the extremely bizarre emotional outbursts she exhibits later. Whatever the point was in creating a character like this and placing her at this point in the story, it was lost for several reasons. Any point about paranoid people or unusual lifestyles was made in the previous scene where a man shoots 2 of their companions. Furthermore, because she is once again so bizarre, it becomes impossible to relate or to identify her in any way as anything other than a part of the film’s collective horror.

Even More Unusual Situations

The elephant in the room with this film is obviously the toxin and its effects and purpose. It would be beside the point to mention the implausibility of the event. Literature, and to a greater extent film, represent the extreme fringe of possibility. This has created some amazing stories in the past. This is the story of what would take place if such an event were to occur. Despite that, it is in the best interest of any writer to pay close mind to believability.

Certainly anything can happen in a story, even if it would not be believable in real life. But when details and chains of events and science become convoluted in a web of ‘what if’s’, then the audience is lost not only on the film’s action but on its message. For instance, it would be plausible to believe that plants might release a toxin directed at humans that changed their behavior. They might, for example, make them belligerent and cause them to harm one another. But it is even more plausible that the substance would merely be toxic and would kill all the humans on its own. What would not be believable would be it causing humans to stop, stand still, then suddenly kill themselves in the worst possible way. This is especially so in some of the instances in the film where the suicides were unusually complex. This was done for sole purpose of creating tension. Watching someone set up a self-propelled lawn mower and then laying down in its path is very disturbing. Furthermore, the perceived loss of control added another layer of tension to the film. This, however, felt artificial and didn’t come across as strongly as it could have. The other cinematic effects, such as placing trees in ominous places behind characters in shots, just didn’t give the intended feeling.

This film has a message, however, which appears to have something to do with the environment as a whole. Nuclear energy is mentioned frequently throughout the film as the cause of, among other things, the events in question. Also, the plants actions appeared to be a ‘defense’ mechanism against the humans which they perceived to be a threat. This is unusual in that in all the scenes where the toxin is released, the humans were doing nothing to directly harm the plants or even each other. In fact, in many instances, the plants were in places where they had been specifically cultivated and cared for by humans, as in parks or farms.

This film presents an interesting notion, but not very well. It would’ve benefited from some appropriate editing at the writing and conceptual levels which would have fleshed out its message, its toolbox, and its characters. The presentation of the film ranges from thrilling to horrifying to comical. There are genuinely funny moments, and many terrifying ones too.

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