Trying to find meaning in “The Happening”

The Happening

Why write so much about a movie that probably doesn’t deserve it, because lessons can be learned more from a film that’s lacking that something than by one that’s got everything. Jim Emerson has an interesting write up at his blog Scanners, with a lot of nice comments in return. This was my comment to him, and my own way of continuing to work out what worked and didn’t work in Shyamalan’s new film The Happening. If you want to read my original post, here. And a later post that’s about the boldness of directors like Shyamalan and further talks about why this film may not completely work.


I kind of completely agree that there is no logical reason for this movie to have been made like this.

Because I also agree that he’s attempting things that other filmmakers would not and in ways they probably would not approach it. The idea of the film alone would have been scoffed at by most people. It’s almost an experiment unto itself and took true cahones to even attempt to pull off. That doesn’t mean Shyamalan does pull it off. Or that he successfully pulls off his attempts to stage things differently.

For instance, I don’t think these suicide scenes you describe are supposed to have an emotional pull to them. The one you talk about with people jumping off the building lacking that one shot to truly make it disturbing. I think what Shyamalan is going for is far more casual. These are casual suicides we’re witnessing. And I think that in his mind it’s supposed to make it more unsettling to witness. There’s no additional dramatic tension necessary – a close up of a person or wide shot showing the distance to the ground would have added a dramatic layer that from the way he consistently shoots scenes in the film – I pull notice to the word consistently – would have defeated his purpose. The long shot of the mower rolling over the man is so casually laid out, you cringe long before it happens because you see it coming. And in turn that casual feeling is supposed to make the audience feel more unsettled than afraid. That feeling that something is amiss is supposed to add, not distract. This is all speculation of course, but again I draw this argument back to the word consistently, he’s not shooting these sequences like this by accident. He’s not making these decisions without reason. Does his vision make you feel the way he wants you too? Or does it make the movie great? I say, not horrible, but not great. And to say he doesn’t know what he’s doing is just as speculative as saying he does know what he’s doing, but it still doesn’t work (these are two very different things.) I still don’t think it works, in fact I find it ignorantly corny.

He’s always tried to visually stage scenes in a way a person doesn’t expect – the scene in “Unbreakable” when Bruce Willis is hitting on the lady in the train is seen from the perspective of a child looking back and forth, for instance.

He’s also always tried to write dialogue in a somewhat stilted manner to convey characters not being able to communicate what they want. In “Signs” this style of dialogue worked pretty well.

But here though…he attempts to use many of those same tools…but you’re right, something is just off. And it doesn’t make sense (and maybe that’s what he was going for…something is just off in this film, nobody in the film knows what it is, no body in the audience knows what it is, does that mean it works?) Nothing in the film really connects, logic is used and then discarded when he wants it to be (the definition of the word happening is interesting)…I’ve never seen a movie in which the mise en scene of the film was the antagonist!!! Look out everyone, the atmosphere is attacking us!!! Or in which a radio appears on a fence post when needed or a house miraculously appears behind a group of people…

The only time that that weird uncertain confusing feeling went away and I felt a hint of terror was with the old lady in the house. You talk about the scene with the doll and the scene at the dinner table. These to me were the most unsettling scenes in the film, because of how they were visually constructed, and the strangeness in which the dialogue was approached. This isn’t just another scene in another movie in which people are having dinner, so why should it be constructed so? Just as in “Rosemary’s Baby” when they are enjoying a snack with their elderly neighbors and the old man is in a single shot separated from the group, half covered in shadows, it draws attention to itself, rightfully so and meaningfully so. You want him to stand up and go sit down next to someone else. Or when you want to peer around the corner of the room to see what she’s saying on the phone. It draws attention to itself without distracting. It’s supposed to be off putting. There is something off in this dinner scene, with this old lady. Just as with the doll. Freaked the hell out of me!

The problem with these sequences — they had nothing…absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie!!! And the style in which they were shot was so far removed from everything else it’s no wonder that you were put off by them Jim. I sat there afraid for my life around this old woman and at the same time strangely befuddled. And then before you can try to make any connection to the rest of the movie Shyamalan picks up his pencil and moves on to the rest of the story we were following before. There’s nothing logical about it the inclusion of this lady and then deletion of her from the story doesn’t sit. And I don’t know if that is supposed to make it better or just makes it worse…I DON’T KNOW! I’m so frustrated by this film and what it’s attempting to do. If the whole film had taken place in this house, with this old woman, so they feared what was happening on the outside and couldn’t control what was happening on the inside…a movie in which everyone has to control the level of their emotions or be killed off by the mise en scene, no the wind is blowing, run away (ha!)…I think I’ve just come up with an idea for my next film (minus the attacking mise en scene)! A room full of Hulks!

“The Happening” is a great premise looking for a way in which to be told. I think that’s why I’m so frustrated by the film. Mark Twain I think talks about the importance of finding the right way to tell a story – Shyamalan needs to listen and take some script notes. He’s a fine director, but has to polish, polish, polish and then completely rewrite from the ground up if needs be. You can only get lucky as a demigod writer so many times.

I’ve written my reactions at my blog but I find this film to lie somewhere between a joke Shyamalan is pulling on everyone (how could it not be, right?) and someone tripping in a field where there’s nothing to trip on.

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20 Responses to “Trying to find meaning in “The Happening””

  1. kellyg Says:

    I believe the meaning was so clear: Nature rebelled the presence of Man. And by that I mean “bad” Man. In a large urban area, the presence had reached some critical mass, so everyone was affected, and it started with the one with a gun, probably the most evil of Man’s creations. In smaller groups, it was when anger or meanness showed itself. In the scene when they split into three groups, it was the soldier first (with a gun), then the group with the black man yelling about which direction they should go. It got all the way down to one, very mean woman.

    Then it moved on to Paris.

  2. Phillip Kelly Says:

    Kellyg, thanks for the comment.

    And let me tellya, Paris deserves it. Bunch of snobs.

    Kidding aside. In actuality the first suicide happens with a casual conversation, as it so begins in Paris at the end. Nothing mean or out of the ordinary…guess there is a scream in the background, but you can only imagine that it’s a reaction to a suicide that already took place. So our first few moments with this phenomenon doesn’t happen around anger.

    I do agree with your assessment nature rebelling against the harm man has done to it. But not once in the movie do we actually see man doing anything to nature. If the two at the top were talking about how they littered the night before…maybe.

    The woman at the end though. She has no reason to be mean. What’s her reason? It doesn’t make sense. There’s no reason for her to be in the film (though she is the scariest part). And if it’s just people being mean to each other, then why would the plant life care? They’d be doing the job for them. And if it is about people being mean to each other why didn’t it attack when the people in the house shot the two kids? Maybe because there was no wind at the time?

    Actually I think it’s just the plants sensing that there’s a larger group, as when the sudden influx of 40 people preposterously converge on the model home. It’s such a ridiculously laid out scene.

    I agree with nature rebelling, but not the “bad” man part. Man being bad is an effect of the cause that’s already there…in this movie anyway.

  3. k4s Says:

    saw this the other night and couldnt help but thinking that this was a statement movie. i dont think the acting was bad because mark wahlberg is a bad actor or that the movie was corny because it had a bad storyline. anyone else notice how stupid shyamalan made the military guy look? i also dont think this was a global warming or save the bees kind of nature movie either. just cant bring myself to believe that shyamalan would make a movie this stupid. not sure what his hidden meaning is so i figured id make this post and see if someone can point me in a new direction.

  4. Jbone Says:

    i just watched this movie a few hours ago with a group of friends and one of them noticed a hidden meaning so we decided to look for others, and we have decided the reason for the creep old lady was that she represented a plant that was releasing these toxins in the air, she said in the movie “the wold doesnt care about me, so why should i care about them” so its like how the plants feel threatened and the world doesnt care about them so their releasing toxins or whatever to kill them. another thing about her is how she invites them into her house but she does it like it sort of a bitchy way like she says i guess yu have to stay now and she feeds them but also in the same attiude, than she feels threatened by them thinking there stealing or trying to kill her so she tells them to leave just like how plants inhabited earth before humans and plants sort of welcomed them and fed them and in the movie they eventually feel threatened the same way and are killing them as a warnign and pretty much telling them to leave the planet i guess.

    me and my friends are trying to find the significance of joey and how she didnt want to answer his calls

    also im sure there is a deeper meaning to how jess’ father was like if yu take her hand that means you take care of her but i havent figured it out

  5. Phillip Says:


    Interesting and nicely thought out. Thank you.

    To find the potential meaning of the line given about taking her hand and the significance of joey:

    First they are both subplots so the mini-themes should relate back to the main plot (treating Mother Earth poorly is like committing suicide.) Which makes the taking of the hand fairly easy, don’t say you’re going to take care of something unless you really mean it.

    The relationship between Joey, Zooey and Mark is another simple thing. The importance of love and nurturing. Notice how in the film the the attack ends when the two realize just how much they love each other and decide they’d rather die together than apart. How much would you go through to protect something and nurture it? Zooey is uncertain as to how committed she wants to be to Mark, just as many of us are whatever about taking care of the planet.

    The themes are pretty simple.

    The one thing that gets me is that none of the characters in the film treated the environment poorly. No one littered. No one chopped down a tree. No one didn’t pick up after their pets. Nothing.

    Another interesting thing about the film is that there is an absence of wild life. Could just be a product of mise en scene or it could have a deeper meaning (though I doubt it.) One thign I know about living in the midwest. You walk into one of those fields off of a dirt road and the landscape is empty – almost in a threatening way. It’s a pretty creepy feeling, specially at night. That’s one thing the movie was going for and kind of got right.

  6. ashley Says:


  7. Terri Says:

    What a set of great, thoughtful reviews and comments!

    We just watched this last night, and I enjoyed it…to a certain extent. The characterizations were the highlight for me, much like in The Village. I really liked JBone’s metaphor regarding Mrs. Jones…that makes a ton of sense in retrospect.

    My biggest question, while viewing this movie, was the significance of the victims walking backward. I just didn’t get that part, and it’s probably something goofily simple.

    Any ideas?

  8. Phillip Says:

    Terri, the only thing I can think of with the walking backwards: if I remember correctly this toxin that is released into the air turns off people’s wills to protect themselves. Walking backwards isn’t the safest way to get around. Beyond that I really don’t think it’s supposed to mean anything. Shyamalan might have found some weird medical condition and thought it would be creepy on camera. And it is to a certain extent.

  9. Heidi Says:

    The crazy old lady is Mother Earth.
    She is angry that we are stealing her things (Slaps Jess’ hand”don’t take things that aren’t yours, screams at Elliot about stealing her things etc.= Clearcutting, oil drilling, etc)
    She’s been trying to grow a garden, but “it never grows right” due to the nearby Nuclear plant perhaps? Some of this is overt speculation, I know Shyamalan is a symbolism fanatic, and uses almost overt/blatant hidden meaning if that makes sense? Its like he has laid it out right in front of you, and you know that, but you can’t quite figure out just what it is.
    I don’t think any blatant littering was needed. It was the earths rebellion against cities in general. The people living in it cause the damage every day, with cars, electric plants, taking over greenspaces etc.
    The model home scene *really* triggered my “WTH is he showing us here?!?” sense. Urban Sprawl=bad? The cities encroaching on greenspaces, or people from the city moving out into the country, only to spoil the country too, like a disease.
    Earth only has a few refuges left, and we are taking over and ruining even the most beautiful places, in the name of selfish monetary consumerism and comfort.
    Meh, I’m not so hot at articulating myself, but I hope some of this made sense.

  10. Phillip Says:

    Heidi, You articulate yourself very well. It’s Shyamalan that hasn’t done so. Who knows what his precise beef is. He may not have had one which is why the movie is as weak as it is. The more specific he had made his complaint the more specific the symbolsm/lesson in the film would have been. ocusing on one aspect of the larger problem would have allowed us to relate it to the larger problem, in the film it’s the reverse. As it stands it’s terribly thin, because it tries to run the gamut of every problem that we could represent…and that’s just far too many for an audience (even the brightest) to try and narrow down in a two hour time period.

  11. Atlas Says:


    As in any film by M. Knight Shyamalan, the major theme of the movie appears within the first five minutes – through metaphor. The first audible words in the movie, spoken between the two young blond women, are:

    “I forgot where I am.”

    ” Your at the place where the killers need to decide what to do with the crippled girl.”

    Because Shyamalan’s movies contain so few words and so little dialogue, EVERY word has to be taken seriously and thoughtfully. Reading other people’s comments about Mother Earth, the movie’s first words become obvious…the crippled girl (world) and we, the killers, standing at a moment of recognition and decision. Ironically, a girl’s scream erupts, and the people in Central Park continue to move on – – until they begin killing themselves, which is really what humanity is doing to itself through destroying this planet, the great hand that feeds us.

    The movie has a great premise and is revolutionary in casting suicide as a major character. Shyamalan paces the movie brilliantly and really uses cinematography and music to enhance the story. But Shyamalan needs to grow up. His previous movies brought him much attention BECAUSE there was so much ambiguity and lack of resolve, in stark contrast to the formulaic Hollywood movie. Alright M. Knight, we got it. Now give us something more. It’s good he’s trying to make a point, but seriously, with ticket prices at $10, the audience deserves more entertainment.

    If he really wanted to make a point, he should have added another half hour and taken the movie in a more epic direction – showing us places like Beijing, Moscow, and Sao Paulo completely empty, reminiscent of “On the Beach” in which nuclear annihilation was not only hinted at but strikingly illustrated and made more real. “On the Beach” changed how millions of people, including many political leaders, thought about nuclear weapons and the cold war. After watching that movie, one is not haunted by the words “nuclear winter” but by the image of San Francisco completely empty – a ghost town. If Shyamalan wants to really impact people’s thinking, he needs to grow as a filmmaker and take greater chances – not become formulaic himself by deferring to ambiguity or lack of resolve in the end, but by hitting the audience with a knockout punch that will startle them and stay with them. He needs to evolve, or else he will become like one of his own characters – walking backwards. If Shyamalan doesn’t come through on his potential, audiences will become as desensitized to his pictures as we became to the suicides in “The Happening,” or rather, “The Half-Happening.”

  12. Phillip Says:

    Hey Atlas,

    10$…where do you live?! It’s 15$ in LA!

    As in most Shyamalan films he tells you the end before it even happens. “We’re moving towards water…they really hate water!”

    Shyamalan is experimenting a lot with how to impart a story, but not necessarily how to impart a theme, at least in a meaningful way. He’s much like Kevin Smith…strange comparison you say? Not at all. They’re both filmmakers that can’t seem to break beyond their singular way of viewing the world.

    Look at P.T. Anderson! He pushed himself to try something completely different, and the results were astounding. On the other hand it took Guy Ritchie a couple mishaps for him to realize what he does best and he came back and did it the best he’s done it. I think Shyamalan needs to try a different genre on for size. His stretching the rules of the thriller/horror/fantasy genre to get something across is truly wearing thin.

    Thanks for the comment.

  13. Rogger Says:

    Did anyone notice the pregnancy???? Think that had something to do with their lives being spared too???? Even the ring being yellow before he left the house to be with his wife….

  14. Eric Says:

    Not sure if anyone will read this anymore cause its kind of old now but I thought I would put my 2 sense in. I agree that the planet is fighting back and all but I also think that it is a play on the global warming hoax. In the scene in the classroom when they are talking about the bees disappearing the answer comes from the conceded boy. “its just a thing of nature that can’t be explained” So that told me after the movie that we as people are always trying to find the “answers” to everything through a scientific way. There is tons of conflicting science to global warming and depending on who is funding the research is how the results come out. If global warming exists then I don’t totally believe that we are causing it. Nor can we stop it. Its just part of the nature of the planet. On the other hand we do focus on material things, our physical appearance, and monetary gain instead of the really impotant things like love, family, nature etc. In the movie when the plants reflect human emotions and attack it doesn’t matter who the vivtim is: young, old, rich, poor, mean, nice social, hermit etc. So there is nothing we can do about it if nature decides to react. We can not stop storms, disasters, earthquakes etc. Science is always trying to play God and I am sick of it. Science is very important but when it comes down to it, Nature and/or God will do what it will. The two main emotions in life are fear and love and when love took over then the attacks stopped. Don’t fear nature it is part of life, reflect love and we should be ok. Its similar to the ending of The Abyss extended version. The aliens saw us as destructive but then realized that we are capable of charity and love. However i thought the movie was a bit strange and definitely lacked something just not sure what. all the above comments are great too.

  15. Says:

    It’s like Shyamalan is using the internet as a source for constructive criticism…
    I have heard a few people mention they’ve seen this film then had to track down some pages to research a fraction of meaning to it!
    I, myself came across this page looking for it and by the looks of it, “Mother Earth” is a spot-on theory.
    Makes me wonder if ol’ M Night got royalty payments from the internet (which I believe is the richest intangeable object on earth) or Google for encouraging so many individuals to research a solution to the mindFUCK he has created…

    I plan on creating a forum soon, for all things “what tha fucky” so add my msn I can keep you updated if you like 🙂 peace..

  16. steven Says:

    I believe that The Happening focuses on the trouble to seperate humanity from one another. The toxins released in the atmoshpere only had an effect on those that were near one another. Shyamalan is trying to show that we are not human unless we are with eachother. Humanity is defined as a social race, therefore how could we be if we are not what we are meant to do.

  17. Jacob from Middile East " Bahrain " Says:

    it must be an old movie by now, ive just watched it
    and i said to my self I wasted 2 hours of my life to watch this!!?

    so i decided to google it, however,
    after reading your comment guys, i was glad that there are some people are thinking positively,

    i enjoyed reading Jbone and heidi comments,

    The crazy old women is the planet, and we ” humens ” do not give a shit about the earth, thats correct, the scence of the car wheel on the grass caught my attention, especially when they decided to turn around to escape from Brinston, after reading Jbones and Heidi comments i think that make sense now,
    1- ” the world dont care about me, why should i care ?! ”
    2- Dont take things aint yours,
    3- and when she said something about planting and it never goes as u want, or whatever she said,

    and then moved on to paris.,

    its all about Nature, Earth,

    i know thier comments was in 2008 but ive just seen it xD lol

  18. Bryce Olinger Says:

    This movie is about design of God, and Earth. Read this and tell me what your think.

  19. Sammy F Says:

    I actually think there is hidden meaning in the happening and I think it is to do with a few things. One being climate change, cutting down trees and building houses on them but the main one for me was Lyme disease. The outbreak all started around ground zero near where Lyme is most present north east USA. The guy at the end said like a rash They are out in long grasses. Do some research plum island.

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