It Ain’t ‘Happening’
Posted by lisagbrown on June 17, 2008
M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Happening, is an exercise in watching the many ways a movie can fail. Yet the most interesting way that Shyamalan fails is in the message he attempts to communicate — a message with good intentions, but poorly wrought in its execution.
If you do not want to know revealing plot points about this film, stop reading HERE.
As the film opens, people in New York City’s Central Park have begun to spontaneously kill themselves. Then, in rapid succession, people in parks, cities and towns across the Northeast do the same. Initially, news reports suggest that an act of bio-terrorism is causing the violent outbreak. But within the first 30 minutes of the film, the major characters have realized that this is not an act of war committed by foreign extremists. No, the toxin that is killing Americans by the thousands all across the Northeast was released by … plants.
In brief and inadequate dialogue, Shyamalan’s characters explain that plants have been known to develop specific defense mechanisms against major threats, and the characters conclude that the plants have developed this toxin in response to human destruction of the earth. They also cite examples of different plant species communicating with each other, and inexplicably determine that the plants have somehow collaborated to create this deadly toxin.
What is Shyamalan’s message? What does he want his audience to learn from his film? I expect it’s something along the lines of: humans are destroying nature and that is a Very Bad Thing to do. This message is hardly original, and lacks all the subtlety of a ten ton brick being dropped on the audience. Nevertheless, it’s a message I would wholeheartedly support, if explored well. So how does Shyamalan fail in communicating his thesis?
Shyamalan’s movie is filled with long, lingering shots of open fields, rustling trees, and flowers and grass swirling in the wind. However, the viewer is not meant to bask in the glory of this beautiful nature. Instead, the audience is meant to identify with the characters Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) who are, of course, terrified of the toxin-emitting plants. As Elliot and Alma run (and boy, do they spend a lot of time running) the audience finds itself in the awkward position of hoping the humans can get away from nature. As the audience witnesses the couple’s terror of the ever-looming plants, the audience takes on the characters’ fear as their own. That is, after all, the point of a horror/thriller — to root for the victim. If Elliot and Alma are the victims, that must mean that nature is the enemy.
I think what Shyamalan intended to do was to demonstrate that we humans will reap what we sow. If we continue to destroy nature, nature will turn the attack back at us. But instead of asking us to see our own faults, and to recognize the consequences of our actions, Shyamalan perpetuates the alienation between humans and nature. He further reinforces the “us against them” friction that humans increasingly struggle with as we grow more urbanized and farther removed from nature.
In the battle with climate change, the challenge is to create personal, national and global understandings of the integrated relationships between people and nature. The difficulty that environmentalists face is in convincing people that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. The survival of both our planet and our species is inextricably linked. But what Shyamalan has done is to reinforce traditional notions that nature ought to be feared. At the end of the movie, he leaves little possibility other than a war between humans and nature, one in which people would very likely destroy every last plant in order to save the human race. Is that really our only option?
If you choose to see this movie, I recommend an exercise that will palpably demonstrate the failure of Shyamalan’s message. When you leave the theater, go to a place with some trees and look at them. Ask yourself: do you feel kinship with those trees? As the wind blows through the leaves, do you feel shame about what humans have done to the earth? Do you see human connection to nature in a new way? Or, alternatively, do you feel the slight urge to run away from those trees? Do you have the ominous and irrational sense that the trees hate you? Is there some small tiny part of you that wishes nature would just go away for a little while?
If you’re like me, you’ll feel the latter — and you might resent Shyamalan a little bit for making you feel that way.