The Happening doesn’t entirely deserve its bad rap. The key to this may be to have low expectations, which I did – I was expecting the train wreck of the year. But it was actually enjoyable and thought-provoking. I would see it again for sure.
First, the bad. The script is pretty poor. There were at least a dozen times words are so absurd they are laughable (“Murder you?? No!” was a favorite). Mark Wahlberg (as Elliot) is terrible – I can’t think of anything he did well. The scene at the beginning in the classroom was one of the worst combinations of this: weak lines, bad delivery, totally unrealistic as a classroom. Also, what kind of principal (nice cameo by Cameron) calls all of the teachers out of the classrooms during a terrorist attack? Finally, there were a few moments where the tension was diffused by editing that was too quick. My brother mentioned the scene where Elliot is on the side of the road with Jess as an example of an emotional scene, which is true, but when Shyamalan cuts to Alma in the middle, the tension skips away as well.
The good: the music was excellent, the movie was beautifully shot (thanks Tak), and I honestly had no idea where things were going to end up. There were a few things that were telegraphed pretty badly (speaking tube? Come on!). There were also a few genuinely creepy moments, though a few small changes could have made them truly great (like the under the door scene in Signs).
The whole “plants attack” idea is intriguing, at least to me. But whichever reviewer it was who said that you can’t just cut to a tree and expect the audience to be scared is exactly right. Trees waving in the field just aren’t frightening. This is a difficult problem to remedy, because I think if you put off the revelation that it’s the plants until the end then the audience will go crazy and throw popcorn at you. But once you find out what it is the creepiness is gone. I think Shyamalan should have stuck to showing reactions and effects, like he did with Mrs. Jones at the end. That’s much scarier than a waving plant. Killer plants is an interesting idea, but bad for a movie.
Related to the plants thing, see this thought, http://www.leithart.com/2008/06/17/sentient-plants. (no hyperlink so it won’t show up)
If you think about the movie as the story of Elliot and Alma’s marriage, I think it works much better than it does as a horror movie. That’s why the movie ends the way it does – with their complete reconciliation. I was interested in their relationship far more than I was in the plants. This relationship did have its share of bad lines, though: “You lied to me?”
The Happening is a companion piece to Signs. Both are movies about how a worldwide disaster of some sort affects people on a personal level. In Signs, a man recovered his faith during an alien attack. In The Happening, a man recovers his marriage during a plant attack. The opening credits for both movies are done in a similar fashion, the quick shift to a small group, the emphasis on television analysis as a way of getting in exposition, the climax of both movies (the danger largely goes away without the hero doing anything about it). They both had the same cinematographer.
Oh, and The Happening is a zombie movie.
HERE END SPOILERS
In short, The Happening is a pretty good movie made from a pretty lame idea and a really bad script.
But, man, Mark Wahlberg was terrible.