Bad Movie Night: The (Nearly) Career-Sinking Silliness of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’

He had a lot to come back from with 'The Visit' and 'Split.'

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, we look at M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 sci-fi/horror bomb, The Happening.

It’s official: M. Night Shyamalan is back. After a series of critical (if not always commercial) misfires that had audiences jeering his name in trailers – leading to viewers being unable to find that nam at all – the twist-loving filmmaker has staged a full-scale comeback, following up 2015’s well-received The Visit with the surprise smash Split (which just topped the box office for the second week in a row). In light of this public forgiveness, some of his earlier, lesser-loved films are seeing reappraisal; I’ve seen “It’s not actually that bad” pieces on The Village and even The Lady in Water.

But not The Happening. NOBODY ever defends The Happening.

It landed in theaters in June 2008, with Shyamalan’s free-fall well underway; The Village and Lady in Water had tanked two and four summers previously, and the latter film’s failure had been particularly embarrassing, accompanied as it was by a step-by-step account of its undoing in the form of Michael Bamberger’s book The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. After the relentless goofiness – and ill-advised tone of meta-self satisfaction – of that film, Shyamalan clearly decided to get back to basics, making the kind of feature-length Twilight Zone episode that people loved him for. Except with an extra bonus: this would be Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie, according to its breathless trailers, as though the filmmaker were a nine-year old coming to school after learning his first swears.

For what it’s worth, he barely does anything with that leeway; there’s a tiny bit of blood, and that’s about it. Shyamlan still prefers tension to gore, which is fine – except when you look at something like the opening scene of The Happening, which has a bunch of Central Park-goers freeze in their tracks, has one guy walk backwards, and thinks that’s totes creepy. But about the only thing shocking here is the bad taste exhibited by a set piece of people jumping, en masse, from a New York skyscraper.

They’ve been infected, we are told, by an “airborne chemical toxin,” one put into the air by – spoiler alert – angry plants and trees. I guess this is The Big Plot Twist (I can’t judge its effectiveness, having heard about it long before finally getting around to seeing the movie), but it’s not a very subtle one; in the hour-plus of screen time before the big reveal, its hinted at by such finely-shaded dialogue as “I think I know what’s causing it – it’s the plants!” and “You think it could be the plants?” (There’s also foreshadowing in the form of menacing tree shots and scary windstorms.)

At any rate, the plants attack first in major cities in the northeast, which sends citizens scurrying for the sticks. Among them are high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg (yes, really), his wife Zoey Deschanel (who’s wracked with guilt for going out for dessert with some dude, that’s an actual subplot), and his colleague John Leguizamo, who ends up sending his eight-year-old child off into the wilderness with Wahlberg and Deschanel while he tries to find his wife, which is totally a thing that every parent would do.

Deschanel has been good in plenty of movies and television shows, but not so much in The Happening; she’s first seen wide-eyed on the couch, twitching wildly, and recites most of her dialogue as if she’s reading it phonetically for the first time, perhaps from an off-camera chalkboard. Wahlberg fares no better; his default mode also seems to be wide-eyed panic, though there is a great moment where he greets nearby gunshots with a look of a sheer bafflement and a muted, “Oh no.” But through most of the movie, he’s doing a weird kind of upper-vocal-register acting that makes you think Andy Samberg did most of his “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals” prep here. And then, of course, there is YouTube’s favorite scene, in which a weirdo folksy lady (Betty Buckley) begrudgingly offers him makeshift a meal and a place to stay before turning nasty. And this happens:

Wahlberg’s strained overacting, here and elsewhere, creates the odd feeling throughout The Happening that Dirk Diggler finally got into a real movie.

But, again, Wahlberg can be good in movies; so can Leguizamo. There’s just no reason for this movie to be this bad – unless it’s intentional. After all, Shyamalan can write a good line, so why would he write ones like these?

  • “All right. There appears to be an event happening.”
  • “It makes you kill yourself! Just when you thought there couldn’t be more evil that can be invented!”
  • “We can’t just stand here as uninvolved observers!”
  • “Were packing hot dogs for the road. You know, hot dogs get a bad rep. They gotta cool shape, they got protein.”
  • “Mother of God, what kind of terrorists are these?”
  • “You have got to stop calling me. You’re acting like the Fatal Attraction guy here. I feel like I’m going to take a shower and see your silhouette on the shower curtain!”
  • And, best of all, Wahlberg while chastising himself: “Be scientific, douchebag!”

So it’s not like there’s any single performance or element that’s off (or that breaks from the pack). It’s all terrible, and is clearly intended that way. For reasons still unknown – aside from Shyamalan’s unconvincing assertion that they were merely making “a really fun B-movie” – he wrote the dialogue this stiffly, and instructed his performers to act like they’d never said words or interacted with each other before. Everyone’s so inexplicably off and disengaged, in fact, that I was half expected the Big M. Night Shyamalan Twist™ to be that they’re all alien beings, trying to act human – that it’s some sort of stealth Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. Frankly, that would be more entertaining than whatever the hell he’s doing here.

The Happening is streaming on HBO GO and is available for rental on Amazon and iTunes.