The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: Kung Fu Panda and the DreamWorks Age. Next week: Oh dear God, The Love Guru. This week: EW film critic Chris Nashawaty and TV critic Darren Franich on the film where the plants are trying to kill Mark Wahlberg.
CHRIS: Well, here we go again, Darren. Two professional critics with shovels in our uncalloused hands exhuming the decade-old corpses of films that died unholy deaths. It only makes sense that after butting heads on Speed Racer and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we should now dredge up M. Night Shyamalan’s environmental horror-thriller The Happening.
First, a little backstory for those who may not have been paying close attention the first time around: The Happening came at a fork-in-the-road point in Shyamalan’s spotty career. After the brilliant one-two punch of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (which I think we would both agree are great), he seemed to be on a downward spiral of diminishing returns. First came Signs (which is probably best remembered for the image of Joaquin Phoenix in a tinfoil hat), then The Village (which was all moody build-up and then petered out into a third-rate episode ofThe Prisoner), and finally The Lady in the Water, which was a departure away from third-act gotcha horror to a bedtime fairy tale that I’m in the small camp of defenders of.
By the time the summer of 2008 rolled around, Shyamalan was in full-on can-this-career-be-saved mode. Expectations of a bounce-back were high. But the critics savaged The Happening. It currently has an 18 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum at the time gave it a C grade, rightly calling it “a feature-length Twilight Zone episode.”
The idea was interesting — after all our abuse of the planet, Mother Nature fights back. But watching again now, it doesn’t do much with that premise. Unless you find wind rustling through trees “scary.” The acting is terrible (Mark Wahlberg has never been less confident in the tone he’s playing, while Zooey Deschanel offers little more than saucer-eyed blankness), the pacing is slack (even for a movie that’s a svelte 90 minutes), and you get the sense that Shyamalan thinks plant spores are terrifying, which they’re definitely not here. I’ll admit that seeing some of the infected people stop in their tracks, babble incoherently, then leap from skyscrapers or lie down in front of a lawn mower have the potential to be scary. But that potential is never realized. This one was a dog with fleas then… and it’s a dog with fleas now.
DARREN: The Happening is perfectly awful, Chris, but I really want to emphasize that “perfect” part. It’s magnificent just how much is going wrong right from the beginning. The opening title sequence is an Ed Wood-worthy stock-footage montage of fast-moving clouds, set to an overworked James Newton Howard score that urgently tries to convince you that these are, in fact, spoooooky clouds. The pointlessly specific chyrons are like jokes Monty Python would make about chyrons: “Three blocks from Central Park, New York City, 8:59 AM.”
The opening dialogue sets a lobotomized tone. A woman on a bench tells her friend (Cabin in the Woods star Kristen Connelly!) that she forgot where she was in her book. The friend says: “You’re at the place where the killers meet to decide what to do with the crippled girl.” The woman nods amiably and continues reading THE BOOK SHE ALREADY HAS OPEN. (Did she lose her place in the middle of the sentence? Can we pause to imagine a moment five minutes earlier when the first woman said, conversationally, “Oh, the killers are meeting to decide what to do with the crippled girl!”) And then her friend looks off screen and says, “That’s weird. Those people look like they’re clawing at themselves.” Nothing in the cutaways matches that description — but some people are moving backward, or frozen in place, which is only scary if you remember all the times in the 2000s when people insisted “flash mobs” were a thing to care about.
What’s happening here is, no question, a full descent into self-parody. Shyamalan found a just-right tone of restrained horror in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Those films radiate an endearingly classical style requiring long takes, long pauses, and zero obvious special effects. The feeling of restraint was, in my memory, especially noticeable through the 2000s, as the horror genre trended toward Eli Roth’s gorenado bloodfests, and most other directors of Shyamalan’s generation was busy trying to figure out how to put their unique stylistic stamp on a blockbuster sequel. So you can see the intention here. There are directors who can make wind rustling through the trees scary. Hell, Shyamalan himself made the forest around The Village look freaky for a few minutes.
But instead, the whole thing feels outrageously artificial, and I really want to emphasize “outrageous.” I think I have to disagree a bit on Wahlberg’s confidence. With what I can only describe as true bravery, the actor — coming off an Oscar nom for The Departed! — tackles Shyamalan’s nonsense dialogue the way he’d later tackle evil Transformers. Cut to Wahlberg, as a science teacher, preaching to his rapt students: “Look, I don’t know if you GUYS? Have heard about this ARTICLE? In the New York TIMES? About HONEY? BEES? VANISHING?” A handsome boy in class seems uninterested. Wahlberg: “You should be interested in science, Jake. Why? Because your face is perfect.”
I must admit to being a very fortunate viewer. I first experienced the movie at a viewing party hosted by our former colleague, reigning Happening expert Kate Ward. Viewed in that setting, the crapsterpiece nature of The Happening really comes to the fore. And I hope it sounds like a sincere compliment when I say that I think Wahlberg is a big reason the film, which should just be a terrible horror movie, works pretty well as an inadvertent comedy. Shyamalan’s trademark long pauses all but demand audience participation. Am I drawing midnight-movie blood from a shoddy blockbuster stone, Chris? And how does it feel watching The Happening today knowing that Shyamalan, who seemed on his way into eternal director’s jail 10 years ago, is in the midst of that long-promised bounce-back?
CHRIS: I guess my invite to this EW staff viewing party of The Happening got lost in the mail, Darren. I will take this up with Kate separately.
Okay, so I guess watching Shyamalan’s the-trees-are-alive folly with irony in a group setting might make you more forgiving of its awfulness. But let’s pump the brakes a sec on what you just said about Wahlberg’s performance. Unless I’m reading you wrong, I think you’re giving him way too much credit that he was somehow in on the joke. Come on! That’s nonsense on stilts. This is just an awful performance in a goofy film. I’ll put aside the whole idea of Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher who reads the New York Times for a minute. But he still just seems totally at sea without a life raft. And that mood ring he wears, which you think is leading up to some great revelation but just ends up leading to a sappy first-date story with his wife, doesn’t add any more dimension to a performance that’s as wooden as a maple. It’s not just him, though. The entire time I was watching the movie, I kept thinking “Why aren’t these people panicking more?” For a movie that pretty shamelessly piggybacks on 9/11 anxieties, no one seems all that scared. They say they’re scared, but you never feel it. Which, honestly, is a pretty apt metaphor for the experience of watching The Happening overall. It’s all tell and no show.
That said, there is one great scene in the movie. One. And I think you know the one I mean. It’s when everyone huddles around a video of a dazed-and-confused dude who works at the zoo, who’s infected and sort of blankly stumbles around the tiger pit and gets his arms ripped off. It’s awesome. It’s obviously not meant to be funny, but the Fangoria nerd in me laughed out loud at how bonkers and out of the blue it was. But here’s the thing: Everyone watching it, they’re not terrified or screaming or throwing up over the horrifying prospect that this poor sap could be them in an hour if the trees have their way. No, they just act like they’re watching a routine double-play on SportsCenter. That’s bad acting from top to bottom on the call sheet. And it’s even worse directing not to know that these people aren’t even remotely selling such a bone-chilling moment. Even the great Betty Buckley as an old loner out in the sticks whose house the survivors stop at is bad. More than anything watching this movie, I got the impression that The Happening might be proof that Shyamalan is a bad director of actors.
As to your last point, this idea that Shyamalan is now in the midst of a “long-promised bounce-back” — all I would say is not so fast, amigo. The jury is still very much out on that one. I assume you’re talking about the two movies he’s made since After Earth (please tell me you’re not including After Earth!). I didn’t think The Visit was all that and a bag of chips. It was pretty meh. And thanks to a very good James McAvoy, Split was fine but way overpraised. I get the sense that people are rooting for an M. Night resurrection more than he’s given us any real reason to think he’s in the midst of one. I guess my last question to you would be this: Where do you think The Happening ranks in Shyamalan’s filmography, and do you think it’s even a horror movie or a thriller at all — or is it really more of a squandered piece of environmental agit-prop in scary-movie drag?
DARREN: Me, praise After Earth? To quote Wahlberg in The Happening: “Whaaat? Nooooo!”
I feel the need to backpedal away from implying that anyone who made The Happening was in on anything. Wahlberg’s performance is the HEIGHT of goofy, but his particular on-kilter reading of Shyamalan’s off-kilter dialogue is some kind of wonder. To your admiration for the tiger pit scene, let me add my sincere enjoyment for the sequence where Wahlberg’s character engages in whispered diplomacy with a plastic plant: “I’m going to talk in a very positive manner, giving off good vibes….” The misfiring tonality of that scene is the definition of so-bad-it’s-watchable, Wahlberg’s energetic line readings merging with Shyamalan’s android attempts at self-awareness: “Plastic. I’m talking to a plastic plant. I’m still doing it.”
Starting with Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s main note to his actors seemed to be “act blanker,” an approach that dead-ended into The Village, which is unwatchably awful in any scene where a human uses their mouth to say words. Wahlberg’s wide-eyed confusion is funny, at least — maybe funny the way Dirk Diggler’s acting was funny, but easier to watch than, like, pre-meltdown Mel Gibson doing the mournful-widower act in Signs.
And when I think about Shyamalan’s filmography, I’m surprised how high my experience with The Happening rates. It’s right in the middle of his filmography, I’d say — clearly not successful as horror or eco-thriller, but vastly more watchable than many of more coherent films. Unbreakable is his straight-up masterpiece, and The Sixth Sense still has one of the best kid performances in movie history. But even though the straight-up horror of Signs and The Village isn’t as obviously dumb as The Happening, they feel limp, lifeless. There is a goofy-pulp hilarity to the early scene in The Happening of construction workers just jumping off a building, way more effective than the attempted austerity of his other mid-2000s films.
I guess that’s why I credit Split with more resurrective force: Unlike his ponderous After Earth/Last Airbender phase as Hollywood’s 57th-best visual-effects peddler, Split felt like The Man Who Forced Marky Mark to Talk To a Plastic Plant finally figured out the just-right mix of eerie slow-burn horror and grinning B-movie hilarity. McAvoy’s performance could just be lightning in a bottle, but a less-narcotized Shyamalan is a vast improvement.
And I’m so glad you bring up that mood ring, Chris, because I need to give you a glittering lump of coal: the original opening scene of The Happening, which provides you with the Secret Origin Story of that all-important mood ring. It is also, unquestionably, the worst work of either Wahlberg’s or Deschanel’s career, four straight minutes of insanely unconvincing domesticity merged with even-more-unconvincing relationship talk, all made helplessly Tommy Wiseau-ish when you notice that Wahlberg is clutching his cereal box like a man desperate to hide behind anything.
The sheer length of that scene makes you feel like The Happening was originally a hundred years long. Instead, the final film is exactly 90 minutes — the precise cutoff time for a terrible film to still be accidentally funny.
CHRIS: Thank you for this gift, Darren. You just delivered a better twist ending than M. Night ever has.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: Wall-E and Wanted
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny