The Happening (2008)

Happy Earth Day everyone. Suck it, Saturn, today’s our day. To celebrate, we took a look at 2008’s The Happening wherein the plants of the world have had enough and decide to release a bunch of toxic pheromones that make humans kill themselves. Plot aside, this was M Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie and continued his downward trend of quality in the aughts. What was it like to go back and revisit? Do we regret every minute of it? Read on to find out. Warning: we do spoil the movie, but frankly the plot isn’t really what makes this one tick.

Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

The movie opens in Central Park where a number of people are going about their day doing standard New Yorker things. Then, things start happening. Construction workers  throw themselves off the top floor of the building they’re working on. A lady reading on a bench says some nonsense words then stabs herself in the neck with a hair needle. It gets weird quick.

Jump to science teacher extraordinaire Elliot Moore (played by Mark Wahlberg of all people) berating his students for being uneducated about colony collapse disorder or something. The school soon gets word of the “terrorist attack” in central park and everybody heads home because school is cancelled. When another attack happens (again, in a park) everyone runs for the hills. In this case “everyone” includes Elliot’s wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), stats-teacher friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

 
 The gangs all here.

The gangs all here.

 

As the crew ride a train out of town, more and more reports of brutal happenings from across the New England region. Soon enough the train loses communication with the outside world and the conductors decide the best course of action is to stop in the middle of nowhere. It is at this point that  Julian parts ways with the group, leaving his daughter with Alma and Elliot, to go and find his wife who they left back in Philly. On his way to find her Julian is exposed to those damn murder-pheromones and he cuts his wrist open with a piece of shattered glass.

Meanwhile, the trio are soldiering on toward what they believe is the outer boundary of where the attacks have occurred (the local news had a map before going off-air). Being the stalwart science professional that he is, Marky Mark is able to puzzle out the fact that the attacks are coming from the plants, and that they are targeting large groups of people. He tells everyone (they’re still in a pack of 20 people or so) to split up and avoid other people until the events stop happening.

The gang, now just whittled down to the three of them, stumble upon a house in the middle of nowhere inhabited by an old lady (Betty Buckley). They plan on riding out the disaster at this location, but the old lady turns out to be a proper nutcase. Real paranoid. She eventually blows up at her new acquaintances and goes outside only to get got by those dastardly plants. Once Marky Mark and his funky bunch are forced to go outside they realize that the happening has stopped happening as quickly as it started happening. Lucky them. Everyone lives happily ever after except that most people are now dead. The movie closes in Paris with a scene that closely mirrors the cold open. It’s happening again.

 
 Clearly the best way to kill yourself is to smash your head into a window to sustain minor non-life-threatening facial lacerations.

Clearly the best way to kill yourself is to smash your head into a window to sustain minor non-life-threatening facial lacerations.

 

What the Movie Does Right

The scenes where people are exposed to the pheromones are actually pretty interesting and brutal. The chemical starts by disorienting you physically so you have a number of scenes of large groups of people either frozen in place, walking backward slowly, or behaving eerily in general. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly scary when taken as a whole, but these scenes were a step in the right direction. The opening scene girl sticking a needle in her own neck is a very good 0 to 60 cold open.

The novelty in the movie also works in its favor. Go ahead, name any other movie where plants attack people and force them to kill themselves. This is a pretty one-sided conversation (unless you want to leave a comment at the bottom of the page) so I’m going to assume that I’ve stumped you. If you want to watch a movie of this sub-genre this one has to be near the top of the list purely because it may well be the only movie on the list. It’s actually also this novelty that makes the fact that the movie is hilariously bad more of a hilarious thing instead of a bad thing.

Speaking of hilarious, I fully endorse the decision to cast Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher. He is the reason why this movie is even remotely watchable. From chastising aspiring science students for making hypotheses to talking to plastic plants to telling himself to “science it up douchebag”’ Mark Wahlberg may not be the actor this movie deserves, but he is the actor this movie needs.

 
 Mark Wahlberg has a legit monologue directed at a plastic plant. It's easily the best part of the movie.

Mark Wahlberg has a legit monologue directed at a plastic plant. It's easily the best part of the movie.

 

What the Movie Does Wrong

Conversely to Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel is truly awful. She is barely believable as a human being. Every single line she delivers makes me wish that I had a vindictive plant in my own room forcing me to torture myself. That might be a little harsh, but I get heated about this type of thing. In this interest of full disclosure, I am not a Zooey Deschanel fan because she is basically like this in every role she plays. She’s carved out a niche career based entirely on playing characters that are waaaaay too whimsical to be real. That’s fine if she is cast with that understanding in mind, but this was one of her first movies so she is completely and utterly out of place in the role she is given.

In fairness to Zooey, she also has one of the worst scripts ever written to fall back on. I mean, just look at this shit:

 
 

Let me tell you this, there is no good combination of things in a script that lead to people running for their lives from a gentle breeze. What an incredibly stupid execution of story. Beyond that, this being M Night’s first R-rated movie he really decided to play up the violence aspect, but seemingly couldn’t actually work the visuals into the budget. There is a substantial amount of this movie just dedicated to people describing various ways people have killed themselves. You know how your english teacher always told you to “show don’t tell?” Well, this is literally the exact opposite of that. It’s lazy writing and it’s pervasive throughout the film

 
 How long has it been since the last thing that earned us an R-Rating? Better toss a lawnmower massacre in to keep things spicy.

How long has it been since the last thing that earned us an R-Rating? Better toss a lawnmower massacre in to keep things spicy.

 

Ratings (1-10)

Story: 4.5 - As we touched on earlier, the concept is pretty novel so it’s getting some points for that. Outside of that bonus though, the story has almost nothing to write home about. There are some alright characters that are encountered along the way (Hot Dog Guy is great), but overall the story is below average.

World-Building / Immersion: 2 - Notably, this is the category that I lump the script into. The only redeemable quality of this movie is that it qualifies for the “so bad it’s good” moniker. If you find yourself sucked into this one at all then it’s likely because you find it funny, not scary.

Scare-Factor: 2 - There really isn’t much here and one of the climactic scenes of the movie involves a group of people running away from a breeze. There are, however, some pretty violent deaths that I suppose could be disturbing if they weren’t surrounded by such a shitshow of a movie.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - As I just mentioned, there are some violent deaths in this one and for the most part they look good.

Overall: 3 - We’ve said this before, but “so bad it’s good” movies are still just bad. This is unequivocally a bad movie, however it is rather fun to watch. I wouldn’t hate it if someone threw this on in the background at a party.