One to Watch: The Happening (2008)
Is there something in the air, or does this maligned Shyamalan thriller deserve a second wind?
In the late 2000s, Oscar-nominated director M. Night Shyamalan’s career saw a downturn in critical success – but his mid-career survival thriller, The Happening, is one entry released during this perceived slump that’s worth another look.
Starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, the 2008 film is centred around a series of mass suicides, deduced by the survivors to be caused by toxins secreted by local plantlife. Elliot (Wahlberg), his partner Alma (Deschanel), and his colleague’s daughter Jess must avoid the invisible threat on their way to safety, and learn its rules if they hope to survive. It’s a Stephen King-esque set-up, and one that the horror legend himself praised for “understand[ing] fear”, in spite of the generally negative reviews the film received upon its initial release.
It’s definitely rough around the edges, but The Happening is a surprisingly austere, offbeat thriller that succeeds in doing a lot with a little
The Happening shares similarities with disaster and zombie movies, but the twist that the threat Elliot and Alma are fleeing from is invisible makes the film much more minimalist than you might expect from the typically set-piece and SFX-heavy survival genre. Shyamalan is able to create suspense simply by showing shots of trees blowing in the wind, and fills the narrative with bizarre scenarios of a rural community turned hostile by fear.
Shyamalan never intended for the film to be taken wholly serious, however. The director has explained that he aimed for The Happening to be “the best B-movie you’ll ever see”, and this approach manifests itself in scenes such as a nervous good Samaritan rambling about how great hot dogs are, or when Elliot finds himself talking to a plastic tree in a show home.
It’s definitely rough around the edges, with Elliot and Alma receiving the privilege of plot armour on more than one occasion, and some aspects being left unsatisfyingly unresolved – but The Happening is a surprisingly austere, offbeat thriller that succeeds in doing a lot with a little.