What’s Happening to our view of humanity?

M Night Shyamalan’s latest blockbuster is an all-too-familiar lecture about the destructiveness of mankind. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

The release of M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening prompted the now customary mauling from reviewers. Unfortunately, so distracted are they by ‘writer, director, and producer’ Shyamalan’s bloated ego that his films are often treated as little more than opportunities to puncture said ego. This time round, however, it is the film itself, rather than Shyamalan, that deserves heaps of opprobrium.

More of that in a paragraph or too, but first a caveat:

Normally in writing a film review, one is advised not to give too much away. For instance, if reviewing The Crying Game one would be minded against the phrase ‘she was hung like a donkey’. Or, in the case of The Usual Suspects, something like ‘Spacey is great in both his roles’ is best avoided.

Nowhere should such discretion apply more than with a Shyamalan film. Since The Sixth Sense, audiences have come to expect the unexpected from M Night. A Shyamalan film without a twist or, at least, an incredible ‘what if’ scenario is, like poor Mel Gibson in Braveheart, eviscerated. But because the problem with The Happening is precisely what happens, then such niceties have to be abandoned. If you don’t want to know the score, look away now.

The Happening is, in short, a film about nature’s revenge upon stupid, arrogant humanity. It all begins in New York’s Central Park. Two women friends are sitting on a bench with a noticeable breeze rippling around them. One turns to the other and says ‘I don’t know where I am’ (she’s reading a novel you see). Her friend inexplicably knows the answer and explains, telling her what page she is on. Thankful, the other continues reading for a few seconds before her friend interrupts again. Something is… happening, she tells her book-reading companion. All around her, people are stopping in their tracks as if collectively disorientated. But the book-reader doesn’t respond. Instead, she takes a large metal hair stick and stabs herself in the neck.

The film then switches to a construction site downtown where we see a group of builders enjoying some tea-break banter. Suddenly one of their workmates seemingly falls from the scaffolding. As they gather round him, shocked and upset, another – seemingly – falls. And then another. The camera pans upwards for an admittedly arresting shot: we see people just throwing themselves from the building.

This, we learn, is how it happens. A noxious wind picks up, and people, whom we are later told are under attack from airborne neurotoxins, forget their self-preservation instinct and kill themselves. But who, or what, is responsible? Despite the pretence that it might be terrorists, which, from a thriller perspective, might have been more exciting, the answer is pretty much a given from the start. As Al Gore might say, it’s the biosphere, stupid.

At this point, the action, such as it is, shifts to a Philadelphia high school where we are introduced to the central protagonists: science teacher Eliot Moore, played with goofy earnestness by Mark Wahlberg; his wife Alma, played with earnest goofiness by Zooey Deschanel; and their goofy, earnest friends, Julian and Jess. The main passage of the film sees these variations-on-a-theme characters attempt to survive the terrible wind.

Our introduction to Eliot allows Shyamalan to give the audience the first of many lectures. Why, Eliot asks his students, are honey bees disappearing from around the globe? Unsatisfactory answers are offered until one kid, under pressure from Eliot, finally gives the right answer: ‘It’s an act of nature we’ll never understand.’ Eliot, clearly exhilarated by this anti-insight, proclaims: ‘That’s right. Science will come up with some reason to put in the books but in the end it’ll just be a theory. We will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding. To be a scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature.’

Sadly, the film implies, respectful awe for the laws of nature is precisely what we, as a species, lack. And now nature is fighting back. This is explicitly revealed to us by a botanist encountered by the earnest goofballs as they attempt to flee from the killer breeze. He explains that ‘it’s the plants’; they are responding to humans as to a threat, much as they send out toxic signals that make wasps kill plant-munching caterpillars. As he is giving his botanical toxin theory, two huge power station chimney stacks continue to churn out an army of pollutants in the background.

The message is all too clear: if we continue as we are, we are literally killing ourselves. The didacticism of The Happening is often overwhelming, which would be tedious were it not for the profoundly shocking anti-human nature of what we are being told: people are superfluous.

In one sequence, Eliot, Alma and Jess have sought refuge in what turns out to be a show home. Nothing in it is real, from artificial plants to plastic food and drink. This is our pathetic attempt not only to emulate but to supplant nature. Seeing a large group of people approach, they are then forced to flee for fear of provoking nature’s windy wrath (the plants attack people who gather in large groups). Reaching the top of a hill, Eliot looks back to see the group from whom they fled commit hari kari with a lawnmower. As Eliot turns away, and runs to catch Alma and Jess, he passes under the billboard advertisement for the new houses. ‘You deserve this’, it reads.

Originally called ‘The Green Effect’, The Happening is undoubtedly revealing; by dramatising a brand of ecological millenarianism, it shows how easily a contemporary fetishisation of nature coincides with a hatred of people. When the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth looked upon nature and discerned the ‘still, sad music of humanity’, it served as a corrective to the dehumanising nature of incipient industrial capitalism. Nature, for the Romantic generation most closely associated with its veneration, embodied the deeply human values, be it ‘love’ or ‘creativity’, society denied, ruled over as it was by Carlyle’s ‘cash nexus’ or Shelley’s fiscal ‘mammon’.

But here, ‘nature’ functions not as a reserve of alienated humanity but as an agent of its destruction. ‘We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptibly disturbing’, wrote James Lovelock. ‘The human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Primatemaia, a plague of people.’

The Happening merely gives such a sentiment narrative form. That it does so to such depressing aesthetic effect is telling. When people are deemed so thoroughly abject, so suicidally selfish, then the end of man loses its terrifying aspect, and any narrative tension that there is slackens. It becomes both inevitable and deserved. What one is left with is no longer a story, a dramatic narrative, but a crude, unwitting parable, a parody of Old Testament cruelty. ‘Can you believe how crappy people are?’ asks Alma. It seems Shyalaman can.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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