DVD Review: The Happening: The Birth of an Unwitting Mock Parable

The Happening was one of the worst reviewed films from a major director this year, for critics engaged in a spirited pugilism of M. Night Shyamalan for his muddled script, poor direction, and general incompetence. The most scathing attack came from Christopher Orr of The New Republic, whose severe trampling mocked the film in unusual ways, revealing plot details and spoilers in an effort to dissuade people from watching the film.

The overall critical dismissal of The Happening was more evidence of Shyamalan's public spiral after his fable, The Lady in the Water, was also broadly panned a few years ago. For The Happening, critics focused on analyzing Shyamalan's overt artistic choices, but they did not quite account for his latent references toward his subject, ones that are contextually mockish, ironic, and parodic.

Here, dwelling briefly on some of Shyamalan's premises could be helpful in understanding why things went absurdly wrong, for Shyamalan may have started off making a catastrophic thriller, but because he makes too many poor stabs at convention and because there are so many nominally theoretical aspects about the film, his failure unwittingly gives birth to a rare kind of American film, the mock parable.

Most parables and allegories are framed by an implicit-explicit duality that needs some parallel critical interpretation to understand its numerous references. Shyamalan structures The Happening with recognizable dystopian formulas as a basis for his theoretical arguments. In this story, modern life is afflicted by an ecological disaster. This catastrophe is caused by mother nature, who attacks her crowning achievement -- humankind -- for unclear reasons. Nuclear power, secret government experiments, and other aspects of modern civilization are implicated in nature's prosecution of humans, an event that defines man as an intruder in the only natural environment available to him.

Orr lists the film's failures, so there's no need to re-list them. Most critics saw these problems as related to Shyamalan's preoccupation with creating insular worlds, ones that need to be understood on its own terms, but ones that show little relevance to a broader audience's immediate needs. Shyamalan's biggest problem is that his latent attitudes are not congruous with his overt ones, attitudes that pull his narrative in conflictive ways. For example, Shyamalan draws somewhat from the Gaia Hypothesis to create his parable, but he mocks the kind of scientific thinking that made this hypothesis (or any hypothesis) possible. He develops this motif simply, arguing that people lack a good understanding of the world, nature, even human nature, because humans are too self-obsessed and blind to fully understand how living organisms interact.

Ordinary people, then, are left with theories that substitute for real knowledge while the media provide reductionist thinking that infects human minds like contagions. Shyamalan's theme bends toward hyperbole, but it is overstated enough to become ironic. In this sense, The Happening departs the fold of dystopian thrillers and becomes a parodic tease of people who speak conclusively about the end of history and pundits who argue definitively about global warming. This teasing is incongruous with the film's serious tone.

In Shyamalan's thinking, self-obsessed humans are the villains, for this premise allows nature to make no distinctions between the toxic polluter and the save the river campaigner. Therefore, every human in the killing zone must die -- even children. For a fantasist like Shyamalan, this perspective forms a clear syllogism, but his argument is simultaneously darkened by performative caricatures and lightened too much by plot absurdities to be persuasive.

What Shyamalan seems to get right is the belief that ecosystems often survive by communicating in ways we have yet to understand, but this belief is compounded by an error in emphasis. He argues that the concept of genetic selfishness is nature's most significant governing principle. Certainly, insects and animals -- by nature -- fend for themselves, often at the expense of others. In this sense, some of these creatures are comparable to humans, yet humans are punished while animals are spared. According to naturalist Brian J. Ford in his The Secret Language of Life, a more compelling governing principle views nature as a vibrant system in which different species interact with one another despite their selfishness -- that the vast spectrum of nature offers many examples of animals behaving in ways that benefit others.

But such a perspective is lost on Shyamalan, for his goal was to create a conceptually radical argument using dystopian terms to highlight the consequences of man's poor stewardship of nature. But most of his overt choices end up parodying its subject because of his misuse of familiar plot devices. The result is that The Happening ends up burlesquing dystopian forms by deflating its subject with unintentional comic results, as Orr rightly points out. But these results are also contextualized by the film's latent problems, ones that mock the very kind of conclusive thinking Shyamalan employs. Critics condemned the film's many problems, but their response can create contexts for meanings unintended by either filmmaker or critic.

There is no uniquely valid way of defining a film's many meanings, but the meanings of The Happening are not just constructed by Shyamalan; meanings are construed by viewers as well, and this critical distinction is important. Though Orr has every right to enumerate Shyamalan's failures, even mock the film, broader audiences can account for the film's negative reception by redefining the context of this film's definitional value because Orr's criticisms are meant to provide substance not just for ridicule but public debate. As a dystopian parable, The Happening fails, but it succeeds unwittingly as a mock-parable, for its parody was not designed schematically but occurs ironically, absurdly, contextually. With The Happening, Shyamalan becomes our most eminent parodist, one who renders parables preposterously.

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