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Where M. Night Shyamalan Went Wrong: The Happening

After Earth, the new movie from director M. Night Shyamalan, arrives in theaters this weekend…but you wouldn’t know it’s one of his films by watching the trailer. The filmmaker’s name is almost completely absent from the trailers and advertisements, and all this week we here at Cinema Blend are trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Eric and Mack have taken Unbreakable and The Village to task. Today, Sean says it was The Happening that ended his flirtations with Night.

I didn’t love all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies leading up to The Happening … but I at least felt confident that I could defend them. By 2008, Shyamalan was a victim of his own success, a storyteller trapped in an unspoken promise to deliver a riveting twist at the end of every new film. The conceit impossible, and it distracted from the director’s ability to tell a story. While I’ll argue that the twist in The Village caught me off guard and remains cool to this day, it was The Happening where, I feel, the bloom officially came off of the M. Night rose.

Shyamalan harbors a deep fascination for mankind’s connection to our planet’s natural elements, a thread that surfaced ever so slightly in The Sixth Sense and grew over time – from the significance of water in Signs to the villagers who abandon society in The Village. Obviously, these themes take center stage in The Last Airbender and, this week, in After Earth. But Night couldn’t wring an interesting story out of a mysterious natural threat in The Happening, no matter how hard he tried. The story follows a man and his wife, both on the run from some unseen, deadly threat, which is causing people all over to commit suicide by whatever method presents itself at the time.

The director has survived on the casting of his leading men in the movies leading up to The Happening. Part of the reason I think Lady In Water works is because Paul Giamatti single-handedly places the ludicrous bedtime story on his shoulders and commits to selling his character’s romance with the mysterious beauty who has emerged from his pool. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, sadly, succumb to the wafer-thin plotting of The Happening, and have nothing to work with beyond reaction shots as Shyamalan pours on the faux danger in hopes of keeping audiences in the dark about his true reveal: That plants are protecting themselves from humans by secreting a deadly toxin, and the real enemy in The Happening are plants and trees. Seriously.

Listen, I’m not alone in hating The Happening. Wahlberg, himself, famously calls out the movie as being terrible, telling EW a few years back:

I don’t want to tell you what movie…all right, The Happening. F— it. It is what it is. F—ing trees, man. The plants. F— it. You can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.”

That’s right. It’s terrible. And worse, for the first time, Night made an indefensible movie. Which is why The Happening marks the movie that officially made me stop expecting greatness from M. Night Shyamalan, and dialing back my expectations.

Sean O'Connell
Sean O'Connell

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.