The Happening (2008)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 4; L-2 ; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 31 min.

The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left.
Isaiah 24:5-6

Fleeing cross country from a deadly attack.

2008 20th Century Fox

Yes, the critics are right in their judgment that again M. Night Shyamalan’s latest work fails to measure up to his first film, Sixth Sense. Maybe the curse in starting out at the top is that one can never match it again in the eyes of such critics—but I believe that this film is still better than its many detractors maintain. The film does succeed in engendering a feeling of malaise so that now when the wind blows I think of the approaching doom of the characters in the film.

In Manhattan a strange phenomenon begins and then spreads throughout the Northeast. People suddenly seem no longer interested in living, first stopping and staring listlessly, and then committing suicide—by gun, by jumping off scaffolds and buildings, by crashing their cars, and so on. In Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), along with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his 7-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) decide to flee the city by train in the hope of finding sanctuary in Harrisburg. Julian is worried about his wife, so he leaves Jess with the Moores and sets off to try to find her. The train sets off, but does not go very far before it stops, and everyone disembarks. Elliott goes up to the gathering of train conductors discussing the situation, but all they can say is that the train stops here.

Everyone, of course, has heard of the strange happenings, but no one knows what is the cause. The newscasters at first chatter away about terrorists, but when this is disproved, their house experts can only guess. The three catch a ride with a man who stops off at his green house to pick up his wife. He spins a theory about plants able to conjure up poisons in order to kill us off for our exploitation and abuse of the planet. Elliott adds to the theory by noticing that the attacks seem to come with the winds, and that the larger the group, the more it is vulnerable to attack. However, he soon notes that even in their small group, the wind brings whatever it is that infects humans, and people die at their own hands. He and Alma and Jesse, finally on their own, wind up at the home of a bizarre hermit woman, Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), who might be as great a danger to them as the terror from which they are fleeing.

Shyamalan’s take on the possible doom of humanity is far quieter or slow-paced than almost all other such films (think of The Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield, The Mist,” and War of the Worlds), which I suspect is the main reason why many do not it. However, for those who can sit back and watch a more subtle build-up of horror, and perhaps who can look at it as a cautionary parable, the film has much to offer. The Psalmist wrote of the hills “shouting for joy” and “clapping their hands” in appreciation of the Lord’s goodness and victories. Shyamalan suggests that those same plant-covered hills might also shriek with rage against humanity’s despoliation of them.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) What do you think of the film—do you agree with those who think that too little happens for it to be interesting?

2) Compare this to other “end of the world” films. How might this be a companion to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

3) How in real life does nature “get back” at us when we abuse the earth? For instance, what happens often to those who strip hillsides for lumber? Who build on flood plains? To the “Dust Bowl” farmers? If this is a group discussion, ask for other examples of the results of pollution and ill treatment of the environment.

4) Compare the film’s viewpoint on the fate of humanity with that of Wall-E.