the take

‘The Happening’: Vulture Mourns the Movie That Could’ve Been

Photo: 20th Century Fox, iStockphoto

The Happening just keeps on disappointing. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie is bad — but was it really the calamitous disaster that his millions of non-fans were hoping for? We were expecting critics to shred it en masse, but Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis both let it off the hook (for the most part). And audiences didn’t completely hate it either — it made $30 million over the weekend! Most disappointing of all, though, is that the film so easily could’ve been better (i.e., worse). We procured a copy of The Happening’s original screenplay, called The Green Effect (dated January 2007), which — before a rewrite — was rejected by several studios. Astonishingly, without that rewrite, this very bad movie could’ve been even worse (i.e., worse). After the jump, Vulture mourns The Happening that might’ve been.

To be fair, sort of, The Green Effect doesn’t include The Happening’s most guffaw-inducing misstep: a scene in which — honest — a man kills himself by allowing a lion to bite his arms off. He then he walks around bleeding to death, like he’s in a slasher movie made by high-school students, while an onlooker shrieks, “What kind of terrorists ARE these?” Apparently, the notes Shyamalan received on The Green Effect included, “Not enough bloodthirsty lions and/or stumps.”

More important, though, in The Happening, the idea that malevolent plants can be defeated by true love is subtext. In The Green Effect, it’s just … text. At script’s climax, Mark Wahlberg’s heroic science teacher realizes that the film’s evil plants can’t kill you with their suicide-causing neurotoxins if they think you’re a good person (actual line of dialogue: “This is the final trigger, Alma! They’re weeding out our energy! They’ve become a mood ring. When they see a color they don’t like, it sets them off”). In Shyamalan’s original vision, the plants kill mean old religious fanatics, but they spare Marky Mark because he and his unfaithful wife (in Effect, the wife’s extramarital dalliance seems to include more than just tiramisu) still have a marriage worth saving. It’s a twist on the classic: “If you love something, go outside with it into a field of toxic plants. If you survive, then your marriage is sound. If you’re driven to abruptly strangle yourself with the garden hose, it never was.”

But the best moment in The Green Effect comes in one of its descriptions of action: “The house by the road becomes very quiet as THE TREES WHISPER MISCHIEVOUSLY.” You’d think nothing could be more difficult for a director than teaching Mark Wahlberg to act entirely with his right eyebrow, as he does through most of The Happening, but that’s because you didn’t know Shyamalan could’ve, instead, ended up standing in a grove of trees trying to explain to them that their whispering wasn’t mischievous enough. Sigh. —Linda Holmes

‘The Happening’: Vulture Mourns the Movie That Could’ve Been