by Lauren Jackson
Bodies dangle gruesomely from trees, strung up by their necks, the life choked out of their features. Grim displays of butchery litter the roads where weeds bend to touch them. Blood spattered sidewalks wind through parks. Bodies rain down in an odd tableau from a rooftop. The wind buffets the scene of a man slitting his wrist from a shard of glass strewn across a neighborhood street. The pieces sparkle in the sun, an odd reflection of what was once life. M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Happening places nature in the forefront of man’s destruction, illustrating clearly again and again the presence of the natural in the wholly unnatural.
There are three essential areas within the film that are unnatural yet born of nature. They are all inherent to modernity as well, birthed of a society that has advanced, and the main argument rests on the underlying fears of humans being their own worst enemy, the reforming of the family unit, and gender roles being reversed. It seems in the end we find relief in nature taking its course and falling back into ‘natural’ roles that seem to steady the rocking boat of apocalypse.
The film is about an airborne chemical toxin that is released into different areas of the northeast, confined within a specified region that causes humans to commit suicide. The chemical affects the brain and inhibits the preservation of life, allowing people to become confused in their speech, physically disoriented, and then suicidal. The deaths are swift and distinctive. Whatever is at hand is utilized: a policeman uses his gun, a woman removes a chopstick from her hair, a man lays down before a lawn mower, a zoo worker allows a lion to maul him, and a man runs his car into a tree. It is worth noting that most of these items are products of modern technology and advancement.
Initially it is speculated to be a terrorist attack, until Elliot, the protagonist played by Mark Wahlberg, who is a science teacher, links the release of the toxins to plant life. It begs an immediate question. Who dominates who? Does man really control nature? Or is man subjugated by what he thinks he controls? This film clearly points out the inherent weakness of man against nature. What can man do in the face of a natural disaster? Many apocalyptic films deal with meteors rushing to strike the earth, or the sun dying out, or massive tidal waves wiping out human life, or earthquakes that destroy cities, or freakish weather that life cannot be sustained in. Yet Shyamalan’s take is nature directly striking back by finding man a threat to natural life. Despite all human contrivance, it means nothing in the face of nature. Military and police are no force against it; there is a direct breakdown of order and control. Man is his own worst enemy.
Man destroys his natural resources, and when the earth begins to feel its continued survival is limited, it strikes back. There is a direct image of this when Elliot and his group arrive at a plant nursery where twin silos of a nuclear power plant are visible in the background. This decisive imagery displays for us the direct harm humans provoke, not only upon nature itself, but subsequently upon the human race. For when all natural resources have been tapped out, life would essentially end.
But I feel the film is pointing at a more direct fear than simply nature’s method of fighting back, or the fact that man does not respect the natural world the way he should. It seems to be rooted in the method of destruction the plants take on. They do not wrap slithering vines around man’s throat, they do not bristle and stab with venomous thorns, they do not jab spindly skeletal arms of trees, they do not emit poisons to incapacitate. Their method of destruction is highly essential to understanding the underlying fear this film seeks to represent. Humans fear themselves. We are our own worst enemy. We destroy ourselves through our actions. Within this you find a debate about nature versus humanity, but it is distinctly unnatural for humans to seek death by their own hand.
The fear of society may be ironically rooted in humans causing their own downfall, not through the actual act of committing suicide, but linking the destruction of natural resources is a strong debate. The illegal cutting down of forests, the oil companies utilizing fracking, coastal erosion, global warming, poaching endangered animals, and the constant need for more. We essentially deprive ourselves of the sustaining nature that will allow us the chance to continue for generations more. But the fear of destroying oneself could be technological or scientific in its approach as well. Perhaps there is a fear that nuclear power or chemical warfare could end our species as well, for both themes are present in the film. It is pointed out that the area under attack by nature was also the most heavily populated with nuclear power plants. The very seed of the idea of the initial release of the toxin was blamed on chemical warfare by a hostile government. And in turn was suspected to have been perpetrated by our own government in connection with the CIA. These feelings of suspicion towards power is simply a human trait. To be flawed is to suspect others to be flawed.
Science seems to be inexplicably linked to nature in this film and does not appear to be an evil in itself. Science is pure; it seems that humans merely use it for their own ends. Technology being what drove the plants to their eventual counter-attack, targeting initially large populations or groups of people, as they are the most threatening. A scientist at the end of the film proclaims: “We have become a threat to this planet!” (The Happening). Being accepted through this language that we have become a threat to ourselves. Both Elliot and this scientist believe that: “To be a good scientist, you must have a respectful awe of the laws of nature” (The Happening). It seems this very disrespect brought about the attack.
Nature reforms the family unit in this film. Elliot and his wife Alma have issues in their marriage from the very beginning of the film. The very introduction of Alma’s character is one of deception and intolerance. They fight, albeit with an undercurrent, through the whole film. In the end, nature brings them together, in their minds it was bringing them together to die, and instead they lived. This allowed them to repair their broken marriage through nature’s disaster. When it became clear that nature had destroyed their best friends, they adopted their daughter Jess. This created an entirely new family structure.
The family structure was also built on a form of role reversal. Alma’s character is not the typical female, but one of quiet reserve. She explains she does not like to share her feelings, and the first time we see her in the movie she is ignoring a phone call from someone she was seeing without her husband’s knowledge. This in itself is a role reversal, as the male is typically portrayed as the cheating or dishonest spouse. Instead, Elliot is the open and sensitive figure in the relationship, bonding more quickly with the eight-year-old Jess than his wife Alma did. In fact, Jess’ father Julian is the only parental figure present in the whole film, placing him as primary caregiver, with the mother wholly absent. Society would argue the natural placement of gender roles be more defined and less fluid, but modernity has allowed for this ‘unnatural’ chain of events.
Murray Pomerance in his article, What Ever Is Happening to M. Night Shyamalan: Meditation on an ‘Infection’ Film, not only dubs the film an ‘infection’ film which he says is a genre born out of the Cold War, but also that: “We surely have no firm reason at the end of The Happening for concluding that the cause of all the troubles here, the ‘agent of infection’, is nature itself, as Elliot has been supposing and as we come increasingly to believe while we spend time with him and observe his suffering and transcendence” (Pomerance, 5). But I believe the exact opposite is evidenced in the film. Nature itself evolves and has allowed man to wreak havoc on that which he should, in a sense, be nurturing – further proof that man is man’s worst enemy. Man’s infection of nature may be the stimulant that brings about the infection, but nature itself is the agent. Pomerance dubs nature as essentially non-sentient, yet the film seems to adopt a clear anthropomorphized view of nature, without affixing any definitive form to it.
Nature at the very least is the backdrop to the film itself, being present in every tableau presented, or as a looming specter in the background of the recurrent themes of the unnatural. And at its height of integration is the vehicle used to move the notion of what is unnatural forward. Nature itself can easily highlight that which is not of nature. To play out the suicide theme which denotes man as dangerous and destructive to him, you place a man lying down before a lawn mower, allowing the mower to cut him down. This is unnatural, a human is supposed to utilize a lawn mower to cut grass, to stabilize nature, not destabilize himself. Thus what nature perpetuates in this scene is unnatural. And the unnatural is what we fear of ourselves, for then we are going against reproduction. There may be an underlying fear of our ability to reproduce if the ‘unnatural’ debates about homosexuality is delved into. There may be a fear of nature being pushed aside and therefore destroyed through the practice of non-procreational sex. This theme is what I link to the ‘unnatural’ behavior of the genders in the film and the reconstruction of the family unit. These ideas may appear at first glance trivial, but may in the larger sense be a growing fear or unease of gender relations in modernity. This may be underlined by the lack of homosexuality in the film. The film is quick to produce women, men, children, elderly, young, middle-aged, and races of all kinds: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, Indian, blonde hair, brown hair, black hair, gray hair, but there is only one type of romantic relationship on display throughout the film.
The unnatural is garish and blaring when Elliot, Alma, Jess, and two young boys seek shelter in a model home. Everything in it is fake and lends an air of emptiness and the entire scene is surreal. Elliot talks to a plastic plant in a bid to establish kindly relations, and one of the boys sits at a dinner table covered in fake food. Elliot picks up a glass filled with fake wine and tips it to his nose to smell it. This unnatural acting out of the natural seems out of place, yet makes a statement that the natural can be born out of the unnatural just as easily as the unnatural from the natural.
The conclusion of the film allows us to see that nature takes its course. Although we are still a danger to ourselves, the natural way of things is life and death. There is a direct juxtaposition of these two notions in the closing scenes. The last we see of Elliot and Alma, is their characters embracing after Alma discovers she is pregnant, essentially placing her back into the female role. The next and final scene of the film is another natural attack by the plants in France. Death embodies the final scene. Life followed by death, nature will always take its course and nature will always win. Man destroys himself in his bid for power, yet nature always has a way of tamping down the unrepentant breed that is humankind. Thus man did not take nature’s warning and destroyed itself. We fear ourselves and the unnatural, and perhaps believe a linking of the two will lead to our demise.
Pomerance, Murray. “What Ever Is Happening to M. Night Shyamalan: Meditation on an ‘Infection’ Film.” Film International8.1 (2010): 34-46. Print.
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