The director who brought us blockbusters like The Sixth Sense and Signs has just released on DVD what critics derided as a flop. With 72 percent of critics hating it, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening was seen as the fall from grace of a 21st century Hitchcock. Considered eerie and arty, Shyamalan said that this time he just wanted to make a “B movie.” The critics took him at his word and panned it. But they missed the point: The Happening is a painful satire on a Western culture which has turned its back on new life by preventing or aborting the next generation, claiming population control as its justification.Some warnings. First, this film contains savage imagery. One after another characters commit suicide in bizarre and bloody ways. Unfortunately, it runs the danger of brutalising the audience it hopes to civilise. Second, this review, in order to rescue The Happening from its critics, contains numerous unapologetic spoilers — reader beware.
In the film, people’s survival instinct is reversed by New England’s flora. As a defence against human overpopulation, plants are releasing an invisible neurotoxin which causes those who inhale it to kill themselves by the first available means. Lemmings throw themselves off cliffs in order to reduce their population. Population control advocates do not throw themselves over cliffs; they throw the next generation. One of the opening scenes of the film depicts a host of construction workers walking off the top of a 20-storey building like lemmings. The film shows citizens of the culture of death doing to themselves what they usually do to the next generation, especially the unborn.
High school biology teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is married to the beautiful but sullen Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who is afraid to have children – like so many others. A young boy, with whom the couple flees from the happening, raises the topic. “Are ya married?… Yes….Got kids?… We’re waiting…. For what?… Huh?!… In marriage you gotta take responsibility.” Shocked, Elliot stops the conversation. But in the tender closing scene, shot from a great distance, the couple is celebrating a positive pregnancy test.
Population and reproduction are placed front and centre. In the opening scene Elliot is asking his students to employ scientific method to discover why the US population of bees has dropped so dramatically. The students hypothesise. Disease? Parasites? Disorienting cell signals? Elliot counters, “but where are all the bee bodies?” Teacher and students ignore an obvious scientific answer: the bees are not reproducing. This “B movie” does not let the audience ignore the missing bodies of the stifled next generation.
Shyamalan weighs the pros and cons of modern science throughout the film. Scientists have an accurate theory about the plants. In grave danger, Elliot calms himself down with mantra-like recitation of the steps of scientific inquiry and comes to a shrewd idea for what to do next. Yet the film also questions whether a desire for comfort can obscure the lessons of science. Elliot’s best friend Julian, who teaches mathematics, decides to leave his daughter to go on a suicide rescue of his wife. Elliot asks Julian to give him some statistics to make Julian’s death wish make sense. Julian makes up some statistics and gives a bitter wink. In the next scene, Julian tries to calm down a fellow “rescuer” by asking her a math problem, explicitly saying that numbers and percentages help calm people down – in this case as they proceed (more calmly) to their deaths, using a number game concerning the mathematics behind the Malthus Curve. The implication is that science cannot teach values and that the science behind overpopulation theories is bogus.
The abandonment, rejection or replacement of children is a recurring trope in the film. In a reference to “green” population control advocates, two childless nursery owners refer to their plants as “their babies.” A bitter old woman has a life-sized and well-dressed baby-doll. When Elliot asks some paranoid hicks for food for his wife and a young girl and two young boys, they refuse. The boys, outraged by their callousness, try to kick in the door and are shotgunned through a window slat. The deaths of these two children are the only two that are not suicides.
Most of the suicides happen quickly and Shyamalan does not linger on them. But three stand out as particularly grotesque. All three victims are anonymous and their deaths represent various abortion techniques. In one, a man in the distance lies down in front of a vacuum mower, like a first trimester vacuum aspiration of a fetus. In another, lions tear a zookeeper limb from limb. The butchery is seen through a videophone, just as abortionists monitor dilatation and curettage with ultrasound. And finally, there is a close-up of a woman stabbing herself in the back side of the neck with a steel hair pin about ten inches long. This resembles a technique in which a foetus is partially birthed and stabbed in the back of the neck with long metal scissors. There is a suicide analogue for the abortion technique of each trimester. As I warned, The Happening may be subtle but it is also breathtakingly brutal.
Like most B-movies, The Happening ends happily. Elliot and Alma’s love has become a new human life. Shyamalan hints that science, love, and life will contradict and defeat the pseudo-science and selfishness of the culture of death. This brutal and subtle work of art is for those who can endure but not relish its violence.
However, it is not for those hoping for a B-movie carnage flick. The Rotten Tomatoes website distils the critiques of 163 reviewers: “The Happening begins with promise, but unfortunately descends into an incoherent and unconvincing trifle.” The film begins with faltering marriage and a sea of suicidal death and ends with a happy pregnant couple full of life and love. By the critics’ logic, committing suicide is “promising” and loving new life is a “trifle.” No wonder the critics missed the point of this masterful film.