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I had the distinct pleasure of watching M. Night Shyamalan’s newest picture, the enigmatically titled “The Happening”, last evening. Flashes of 50’s party scenes and leather jacketed greasers aside, the new flick’s plot centers around high school science teacher Elliot, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his wife Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel. One by one, cities and towns are being attacked by an unknown chemical which cause the person to stop whatever they’re doing, and then promptly kill themselves. The Happening begins with alternating scenes of death and panic. We initially begin with the first “attack” which takes place in New York’s Central Park. Construction workers jump off of buildings, a girl impales her neck with a chop stick. It’s compelling stuff, if you like that kind of thing. I happen to enjoy gore, individual mileage may vary. We are then transported into a high school science class being taught by Elliot. He brings up the mysterious disappearance of bees, prompting his class for possible answers. The students suggest several different causes including a virus and global warming. I personally found that the best answer was the last answer. A kid, after being egged on by the teacher, suggests that the disappearance was a force of nature which we would never be able to understand. Elliot responds to that drivel, not by pointing out the intellectual laziness of it, but rather by applauding him. He goes on to say that defining certain phenomena as unknowable as a good scientific belief. He apparently defines science as giving up when it’s difficult to explain things. From that point onward the movie descended into depths of weirdness unheard of. Plants attack people, lots of people act like their drugged up, some guy claims to be able to calculate a time table for an event which he doesn’t know anything about, and Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic tree. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie eventually decides on a cause as well as a potential meaning for the strange events. About halfway through the movie, we are told, through Elliot, that the strange events must be caused by plants. He justifies it with a couple points. Plants are able to release toxins when “threatened” or attacked. The “neurotoxin” responsible for the symptoms is described as a natural, airborne compound. (Though there is a perfunctory “government did it” theory) The coup de grace, though, is that the attacks first took place in…of all places…a park! Astounding. Luckily this is where the comedy part of the movie picks up, since a man can only live on so much gore before he yearns for something new.

The plants deliver their neurotoxin through the air. Which plants are responsible is never specifically stated. An astute reader would have figured a problem with this. How do they attack with the neurotoxin when they are dependent upon the movement of the wind? It wouldn’t be a very scary movie if all you had to do was stay upwind. Well here’s the rub. While this is never explained, it appears that the plants are capable of invoking wind at will. I know. This is a strange theory, but it is the only one which matches the evidence. In each case, the wind appears, seemingly at the beck and call of the plants, right at the moment when the plants are attacking! Scary stuff. Luckily when confronted with such a heinous threat, one can always run away. Yes. That’s right. They run away from the wind. There is a scene where Elliot and his group are running towards the camera while the wind “chases” them through a field of grass. It was at this point that I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. It was also at that point which I realized that “The Happening” was a comedy. I beliefe Mr. Shyamalan has been stealing, err, studying from South Park, as their global warming episode featured a crowd running from “global warming”. Beyond running from wind, one can, according to this movie, simply close doors and windows in order to prevent an airborne neurotoxin from entering the house. Indeed, it is little known fact that houses, no matter how old or well maintained, are absolutely air tight as long as their doors and windows are closed. It was this little known fact allowed both Elliot, Alma, and Elliot’s friend’s daughter to survive the attack.

In the end, the movie explains the whole…well…happening as a “warning” to humans to stop messing up the environment. Leaving aside the fact that the movie attributes both supernatural abilities and a consciousness to plants, it seems ironic to me that the final plot point simply parrots the moral endings of the alien movies of the 60’s. Luckily though we have a token skeptic to bring us home. He doubts the nice “scientist”(an old guy who is really tightly wound is a scientist?) and his explanation. What happens? He’s shown to be the dirty skeptic which he is. The final scene brings the whole movie back round as a new attack takes place in France. See!!! You dirty skeptics!!!! WE TRIED TO TELL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! oh. Sorry.

I must be honest that while I try to use critical thinking and skepticism I am always willing to temporarily accept wacky things during movies. The point of movies is ostensibly to entertain. If critical thinking must be left at the door when watching, well that’s the price of telling an interesting story. So, I have nothing against “The Happening” being totally unrealistic. I have a problem with the movie being completely ridiculous. The problem was that the plot and the basic ideas underlying the movie were ridiculous. “The Happening” is a decent movie but it suffers from the same flaw that all of M. Night Shayamalan’s films have suffered. Whether the movie’s about ghosts, or aliens, or a haunted village, or evil trees, they begin with an interesting, promising premise and end with a flawed execution. If you don’t mind goofy premises, the movie is watchable. Otherwise the movie is rather forgettable.

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