The Happening

The Happening ★★

2008 Ranked

Heavily inspired by the 1950s science fiction Cold War paranoia thrillers, The Happening is the film that gained notoriety for Mark Wahlberg talking to plants. This is an unfair reputation because the film is actually incredibly compelling. Capturing the same paranoia and confusion of those 1950s films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (especially this one really), as well as the mistrust of government that could lead to such an incident and current events in regards to pollution, The Happening is a compelling film. Often times, it is incredibly thrilling and a truly enjoyable ride. However, it is undone by terrible dialogue and even worse acting that make you laugh more anything.

First, the negatives. The acting leaves so much to be desired. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are often equivalent to a brick wall trying to emote. There is one, incredibly tense, scene in which the two of them and Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), the daughter of one of their friends who left her in Elliott (Wahlberg) and Alma's (Deschanel) care, are in a home in the middle of nowhere. Trying to escape whatever is causing people to kill themselves, they stay in the home of a clearly psychotic woman. When she tells Elliott that she can hear them plotting to kill her in her sleep (they were not), Wahlberg unconvincingly let's the words, "What? No!" leave his mouth and it left me in stitches. There are moments such as this throughout the film that left me dying of laughter, whether because the dialogue was so random and unconnected to the plot or because the delivery of the line was just that funny. There are so many random exchanges in the film that really do nothing for the plot, especially between Elliott and Alma, where Shyamalan tries to create emotional tension. This is truly The Happening's greatest weakness. Even when the acting is not that bad, the script is so horrifically written and scattershot that nobody can help but laugh at the dialogue. It often mirrors The Room in this regard, though it is far more focused. The Room is meandering chaos. The Happening has its random dialogue occur as the plot manages to progress. This element saves it from being worse, but the dialogue needed at least another dozen rewrites.

While those negatives really kill any steam the film could have possessed, there are some serious strengths offered by the film. Though undeniably a B-movie, Shyamalan knows tension and it is all over this film. This film is often incredibly thrilling as the residents try to figure out what is occurring and how to escape the wrath of the plants. While the plot can be silly, the implication of it and the way in which it makes it nearly impossible to escape really allows this film to be laced with paranoia. In particular, the ending sequence mirrors the hopelessness of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the fear that you realize this may not be over. In conjunction with the rest of the film, this ending is incredibly effective at eliciting fear in the viewer. While the terrible dialogue can often distract from the tension, when The Happening roars (particularly in the second half), it really hits.

Though I expected to hate this and laugh at it all the way through, I only laughed through half of The Happening. It is not entirely joyless either. While often horrifically written and horribly acted, The Happening shows that Shyamalan still knows how to direct, even if he cannot write. Somebody clearly needs to help this man out and lead him to a passable script because there is a talented director trapped inside, if only he could get out of his own way. The Happening, often cited as one of his worst efforts, is a perfect example of this. Though thrilling and paranoid, while calling back brilliantly to 1950s science fiction films, The Happening fails due to the writing and acting. If everybody in the film were mute, The Happening could have been a true science fiction wonder updated for the 21st century. Sadly, it is not that film.

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