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Film Review: Re-evaluating M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in light of the current climate crisis

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

When The Happening was released in 2008, most American film critics hated it, as did film audiences. Few European critics reacted positively, but they remained an exception. The movie has been partially re-evaluated during the last decade, but mainly as an excellent example of a B-movie made with A-level production means. It could be the right moment to watch it again and analyze its explicit ecological message.

The film was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan during a descent phase in his career. However, things have changed, and since 2015 the director has found critical and commercial success. Shyamalan was one of his generation's most interesting Hollywood filmmakers due to his unique visual style and storytelling approach, combining spiritual and philosophical elements with great suspense and shocking twists. Movies like The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004) are some of the most unconventional blockbusters of the early 2000s.

The Happening presents itself as a variant of the average Hollywood disaster movie, in which an extinction-level event threatens the survival of the human race. Shyamalan uses very few digital effects, and the catastrophe is almost entirely told from the point of view of ordinary people, not from the perspective of the government or the military. The movie recalls elements of the 1950s/1960s sci-fi and horror paranoia films, such as The Thing from Another World (1951), Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).

The plot is simple: a mass suicide epidemic starts to plague the US. People take their own lives suddenly and without reason. The main character, a school teacher played by Mark Wahlberg, and his wife (Zooey Deschanel) try to survive this strange apocalyptic event. At the same time, the authorities struggle to understand what is happening. Mass hysteria and departure from big cities have become the new normal.

The explanation of the phenomenon is revealed only later in the movie. After all the damage humans have caused to the ecosystem, plants have started perceiving humans as dangerous. As a result, they have developed a defence mechanism against humans: an airborne-released toxin that interferes with the nervous system and leads people to kill themselves. It is the same thing that often happens when plants develop mechanisms against invasive insects, only on a more extensive and deadlier scale.

The ecological message of the movie is clear. Shyamalan avoids direct moral lessons and instead leaves the spectators to reflect on the true meaning of this very dark fairy tale. Humans and Earth's ecosystem are bound: we live on this planet, and there is no other place to go. If we consume it, draining all its resources and exacerbating the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of animal and vegetal life, we will soon pay the price. Fortunately, not the catastrophic one depicted in The Happening, but the damage we are inflicting on nature will at some point become damage to ourselves. It is already happening.

Climate change-related droughts have destroyed plants in several areas of the world, such as the horn of Africa, and the subsequent famine threatens to kill millions of people. Movies like The Happening are not just entertainment but want to give us a warning. This important cry of alarm about the climate crisis is the reason it is time to have a new look at this M. Night Shyamalan's undervalued film.


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