M. Night Shyamalan's critically-panned flick The Happening is Hollywood's first blockbuster to promote the anti-evolutionary theory of intelligent design. Maybe you thought Ben Stein's ill-fated documentary Expelled was the only movie to argue in favor of the neo-Christian idea that an "intelligent designer" created the universe. Think again. With its references to "unexplained acts of nature" and a science teacher main character who calls evolution "just a theory," The Happening is basically a giant propaganda machine for intelligent design. Maybe science journalists are jizzing all over its allegedly realistic plants-attack-humans plot, but we talked to Shyamalan and we know the truth.
Avowed Christian Shyamalan told us that The Happening is really about religious faith, and explained that he chose Mark Wahlberg to play science teacher Elliot Moore because of the actor's intense belief in Jesus. Maybe he also chose vacant-eyed Zooey Deschanel to play his wife Alma because she looks like a little girl who needs a big strong monotheist in her life? No comment on that one from Shyamalan.
We get tipped off to the fact that this allegedly science fictional movie is really an ID tent revival in the opening scenes where Elliot teaches his science students about evolution. He explains to them that honeybees are disappearing all over the country, and asks what some possible explanations might be. Students who say things like "climate change" and "evolution" are dismissed as being "partly right." But then when a generally quiet student finally says, "It's an act of nature that we can't understand," Elliot lights up and says that's the best answer. That phrase "act of nature," which sounds suspiciously like "act of God," crops up in the movie again and again to explain why plants have suddenly decided to kill humans.
Remember, ID substitutes God for nature in its theory of evolution — ID believers think evolution happened, but that it was guided by (a Judeo-Christian) God. So an "unexplained act of nature" is pretty much the same thing as saying an "act of God" in ID-speak.
Once people in New York City start killing themselves in random, gory ways, Elliot flees with his wife Alma and his math teacher pal Julian, as well as Julian's daughter Jess. In the film's other major Christian-influenced subplot, we discover that Alma and Elliot have "been fighting" — not only does Alma have the gal to insist that they "wait to have children," but she also went out to dessert with a male colleague without telling Elliot. What? Dessert and lack of babies makes her evil? Apparently so. Julian hisses to Elliot that Alma basically isn't good wife material and that he doesn't trust her. One of the major plot points in the film is whether Alma can somehow be redeemed through her tribulations. And by redeemed, of course, I mean: Will she learn her proper place in her relationship with Elliot?
As our little band of characters flee into the Pennsylvania countryside, they gradually begin to realize that the waves of suicides might be caused by plants. We see news commentators talking about how the "attacks" probably aren't coming from terrorists. And Elliot uses the "scientific method" to deduce that plants can "spontaneously evolve" in response to a threat. Maybe plants think humans are threats, and "spontaneously evolved" in an "act of nature" to manufacture a toxin that switches off humans' self-preservation instincts? Why, we'd all just instantly commit suicide! You know, because God — erm, I mean nature — is mad at us! For doing things like not polluting and not having babies with our husbands.
Trying to look wise but merely looking blank and addled, Elliot ponders and looks into the middle distance, intoning, "Science will come up with a reason to put in the books but int eh end it's just a theory. We fail to acknowledge forces at work beyond our understanding." Well put, Mr. Science Teacher. All those atheists with that whole "evolutionary theory" thing don't realize it's just a theory! Probably everything in nature is just beyond our understanding. Let's pray.
But back to "science." Once Elliot has discovered that plants are causing the suicides, he surmises that plants only attack humans in groups. So he and Alma head off into the deepest, unpopulated countryside with three kids from a group of refugees (Julian has gone with another group to Princeton to find his wife, leaving daughter Jess with Elliot). God makes another intervention at this point.
When the group comes up on a boarded up house, they beg its occupants to let them in. Elliot, Alma, and Jess are polite, but the two boys with them aren't. They kick the doors, calling the people inside "pussies" and "bitches." So the guys inside shoot them, in randomly gory detail. Let this be a lesson to you kids: Don't curse, or you'll be killed by rednecks with guns if the plants don't get you first.
Despite all this absurdity, you've got to admire Shyamalan's amazing ability to whip out a perfectly-constructed horror/scifi plot without actually ever having any kind of monster or coherent threat. We get all the classic "scary monster" moments in this movie — people staring at stuff with horrified looks on their faces, distant screams, long tension-mounting shots in creepy houses — and yet at the moment when we expect to look into the face of The Big Bad there's literally nothing. No Cloverfield with its throbbing, toothy face, no disfigured bad guy with a bag of poison. Just beautiful fields of trees and grasses moving gently in the breeze.
There's a kind of true brilliance to The Happening at these moments. It's as if Shyamalan, a smart guy if nothing else, is trying to show us that at the heart of every monster movie there really lurks nothing at all. Just an empty field that you can fill with whatever terrifies you most.
And yet a meditation on cinematic form and the construction of horror movies isn't exactly what The Happening wants to leave us with. Instead, we are forced to watch in where's-our-twist-ending boredom as the "happening" ends abruptly — at the exact moment when Alma realizes she really does want to be a proper wife to Elliot, and to be a mother to the now-orphaned Jess. As some TV talking heads explain later, "events like this can just end suddenly." And we're left with an image of Elliot, Alma and Jess embracing in a de-monstered field of plants, in the middle of an Eastern seaboard which has almost completely suicided itself.
I guess that's why three months later, in an even more nauseating coda, Jess is happily skipping off to school. Private schools in NYC are easy to get into at last, since all the kids are dead. Luckily, however, Alma is ready to help repopulate: She dances out the door to meet Elliot coming home from work, bubbling over with the good news that she's pregnant. Praise Jesus! At last, Alma is doing what "nature" and "evolution" want her to do.