Look, I’m not necessarily recommending that you watch The Happening again. I wouldn’t do that to you. But I am saying the basic story, which I’ve always thought was intriguing, is especially relevant during the coronavirus pandemic.
I understand you might think I’m just trolling you. You probably remember a few specific things about The Happening that make you laugh without much fondness. Perhaps you remember the awful casting. Mark Wahlberg is a cool science teacher who really connects with kids. He plays it the same way he plays a Boston cop, an oil rig worker, or the companion to a foul-mouthed teddy bear: as Mark Wahlberg. His main character trait in The Happening is that he’s wearing a mood ring. You’ll get the mood ring’s backstory before the movie is over. It involves Zooey Deschanel being horny.
You might not remember Zooey Deschanel is in this. Probably because she’s not. I mean, sure, she shows up in some of the shots and even delivers lines. But you can tell from her face she’s a million miles away. She might even be astrally projecting, which would account for the bewildered look in her big blue eyes. “Where am I?” she seems to ask. “Is this real?”
There’s a tragically unnecessary subplot about Zooey Deschanel feeling guilty for having dessert with a coworker. But at least this subplot gives us Wahlberg’s unforgettable “superfluous cough syrup” monologue, which actors should study for generations to come. Especially the nod at the end of the monologue. In fact, I take back what I said about tragically unnecessary. I’ve decided the title of the movie is a reference to Wahlberg’s monologue. It’s worthy of Samuel Beckett.
There is perhaps one authentic moment in The Happening. John Leguizamo realizes he needs to head back into the dangerous populated area to find his wife. But he knows he can’t take his young daughter with him, so he asks Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel to take care of her. They agree. Zooey Deschanel reaches for the little girl.
Leguizamo almost growls at her. “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it,” he says. This is where you can tell Leguizamo is a good actor. Zooey Deschanel is taken aback. It’s as if she didn’t realize anyone in this movie would actually be acting. She quickly retreats to the astral plane.
Shortly thereafter, John Leguizamo talks down a panicked woman by giving her “math riddles”. That’s what he calls them. “Math riddles”. It doesn’t work. They both die. But the math riddles aren’t as bad as Mark Wahlberg’s science mantra scene. A group of people just over a small rise are taking turns shooting themselves in the head, and Mark Wahlberg reacts by frantically reciting his science mantra about identifying variables and testing data and forming theories. He recited it with his students earlier in the movie, which says a lot about how he connects with kids. All those high school kids were able to recite, in unison, his five or six step plan for how to science.
“All right, be scientific, douchebag,” he says out loud, as people nearby are shooting themselves in the head. He calls himself “douchebag.” People in Mark Wahlberg’s survivor group implore him to help stop the nearby mass suicide. He shouts at them, reprimanding them for not giving him a “goddamn second” to think about what to do. So he recites his science mantra and concludes that they should all run away. Science in action.
To be fair, as a director, M. Night Shyamalan manages occasional effective and eerie scenes in even his worst movies. Some of the suicide stuff in The Happening is chilling. The handgun used out of frame as it’s passed along down the street. The single continuous shot of the jeep crash. The construction workers falling silently off the building. Some of the suicide stuff is unintentionally hilarious. Jeremy Strong — yes, Jeremy Strong from Succession — shouting out his manifesto about how his gun is his friend. Twice, in case you didn’t hear him the first time. Betty Buckley smashing her head through windows. A guy lying down in front of a lawnmower. The video of the guy staggering around armless in the lion cage. Hoo boy.
What’s most effective in The Happening, and what’s especially memorable now, is its unique apocalypse. I don’t mean the plant stuff, which is a ham-handed attempt at a cautionary ecology tale. The premise is that plants, who can communicate with each other, feel threatened by the damage humanity has inflicted on the environment. So they band together and rapidly evolve to emit neurotoxins that block the receptors in our brain that keep us from harming ourselves. I didn’t know we had receptors in our brain to keep us from harming ourselves. I would have thought that’s just part of the whole self-preservation instinct. But, no, the receptors keep us alive, because when these receptors are blocked, we instantly want to commit suicide by any means possible. The communicating and rapidly evolved plants release this neurotoxin to stage a 24-hour warning demonstration in the Northeast United States, driving tens of millions of people to commit suicide and thereby depopulating the entire area. The last scene of the movie shows another neurotoxin session getting underway in France. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll never get The Happening 2 and therefore we’ll never know how the France thing went.
But my assertion is that The Happening is an intriguing story buried underneath the trappings of its dumb script and even dumber sciencesplaining. It’s a story about an isolation apocalypse. The killer plant premise suggests that plants only feel threatened by large groups of people, so the neurotoxim takes time to drill down to smaller gatherings. The deaths begin in Central Park — because, you know, plants live in parks — then spread out into New York City and other urban areas. Then they work their way into smaller towns. After that, they move along the roads where people are traveling, then they blow with the wind across fields to catch up to small gatherings, and finally they even kill people standing alone in a garden.
To survive, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel have to isolate themselves in small rooms connected only by a “speaking tube”. One end of the tube is in a spring house, which is apparently a small building that houses a spring. The other end of the tube is in a basement room where escaped slaves were hidden after the Civil War. They sit in their respective rooms and talk through the speaking tube, aware that they have to stay apart if they want to live.
The Happening is about an apocalypse that forces people away from each other. It shatters humanity in the aggregate and divides us further and further from each other, into smaller and smaller groups, until our only hope is to be alone in a room connected to each other by nothing more than tubes. Society ends when everyone is physically isolated from each other, only capable of communicating without any actual presence.
According to the movie, this isolation is a fate worse than death. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel decide they would rather die than live apart, so they heroically march out into the open with all the deadly trees and killer grass and man-killing bushes around them, and they join hands expecting to die. Also along for their final death march is John Leguizamo’s daughter who they had sworn to protect, but oh well.
Fortunately, the movie is ending now so the plants have given up on killing people in this area. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel survive and now they get to be among the few people still alive in New York and Pennsylvania, which will mean they get a hugely disproportionate representation in the electoral college during the next election. And are you ready for the trademark M. Night Shyamalan twist ending? Are you sure? Because here it comes. There is no twist ending! That’s the twist.
The Happening is really bad, but not for its fundamental premise. If you dig deep enough under the awkward casting, the awful acting, the risible dialogue, and the mostly clunky direction, you can catch a glimpse of an existential apocalypse movie that anticipates social distancing, and even suggests this is how the world will end. We have to leave each other if we want to survive.
Fortunately, you don’t have to subject yourself to The Happening if you want to see an unsettling existential apocalypse movie about technology, isolation, and the end of the world. You can instead watch Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo, which doesn’t relate as directly to the current pandemic, but is instead just a great movie. Be sure to watch the original Japanese version, with the English title of Pulse, and not the inevitable and inevitably terrible American remake, also with the English title of Pulse.