M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, The Happening, is not merely bad. It is an astonishment, so idiotic in conception and inept in execution that, after seeing it, one almost wonders whether it was real or imagined. It’s the kind of movie you want to laugh about with friends, swapping favorite moments of inanity: “Do you remember the part when Mark Wahlberg … ?” “God, yes. And what about that scene where the wind … ?”
The single most absurd element of The Happening, the wellspring from which all other absurdities flow, is its conceit: Across the Northeastern United States, people are succumbing to a toxic airborne agent that makes them commit suicide, often gruesomely. At first it hits major population centers, followed by smaller towns, and on down to groups of even just a handful of people. Initially, it’s assumed to be some kind of terrorist attack. But as we learn pretty early in the film, it’s not. It’s trees. Yes, the trees (and perhaps some bushes and grass, too, the movie’s never too clear on this point) have tired of humankind’s ecological despoilment and are emitting a complicated aerial neurotoxin that makes us kill ourselves en masse. I bet you wish you were the one who came up with this blockbuster idea.
But enough about the boring interpersonal melodrama: On to the boring arboreal genocide! Each time the airborne toxin strikes, everyone ceases what they were doing and freezes in their tracks for a moment. It took several such episodes before I stopped anticipating that they’d commence tapping their feet in unison, as in the beginning of a big musical ensemble number.
Alas, there’s no singing. But the methods of suicide chosen often seem chosen for their entertainment value, in particular: the man who meticulously starts an industrial mower and then lies down in front of it; the woman who wanders around a house methodically smashing her head through windows until she embeds enough glass in her skull to keel over; and, of course, the zoo lion keeper who invites his charges to bite off his arms so he can stand around, Black Knight–like, spraying blood from the stumps.
Equally odd is their insistence, even though they’ve known from the beginning that the deadly nerve agent is airborne, on spending as much time as possible outdoors. When fleeing by car, they leave the windows rolled down; anytime they want to look at a map or discuss what to do next they get out of the car to do so. It never seems to occur to any of the protagonists that they should get inside somewhere and tape the windows and doors --even though this is the only strategy we’ve seen work for anyone else. Eighty minutes into a 90-minute movie, Alma and Jess are still sitting in a small guest house with all the doors and windows open. When Elliot, who’s just watched someone fall victim to the toxin nearby screams, “Close the windows and the doors!” Alma innocently inquires “Why?”