Botanicult Fiction: The Happening
By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens
The Happening is a 2008 film by M. Night Shyamalan starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley. It is intended as a homage to the genre of paranoia movies from the 1960s such as The Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The film starts with New York science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) talking to his class about the sudden and mysterious disappearance of bees and the state of the planet’s degraded environment. A short time after, inexplicable reports of mass suicides begin to appear starting in Central Park. At first this is believed to be because of a terrorist attack using a neurotoxin. As the situation worsens, Elliot, his wife, a friend, and his daughter decide to leave the city and get to safety in Philadelphia. Upon arrival, they immediately head to the safety of the rural countryside. Here they meet a horticulturist and nursery owner who hypothesizes that the attacks have been initiated by plant life as a defence mechanism against the human environmental destruction of the planet’s ecosystems. As the plot develops the botanical attacks continue, targeting larger and larger groups all across the northeastern United States. People gather particularly across the rural landscape of Pennsylvania where small groups are seeking safe haven away from major cities. Mysteriously the hostile incidents end as quickly as they started.
Three months later, an environmental expert interviewed on TV warns that the attacks may have been intended as a warning and, as such, a precursor of further worldwide ecosystem catastrophe. He further asserts that plant life might be rejecting the global presence of humanity as a pest needing to be eradicated. His hypothesis is met with disbelief until another wave of suicides begins in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, France, and the cycle escalates. This is where the film ends.
Upon release, The Happening received a poor response from critics in general. It is however, one of those unusual films that arguably (based upon your point of view) sits on the cusp of the folk horror genre due to the lack of a specific character-driven protagonist. This makes it much more interesting than a mere paranoia flick. Instead, the quiet, pastoral landscape and gently waving vegetation and trees become the terrifying harbingers of invisible doom. The Pennsylvania landscape itself becomes the central character of the film with the plot suggesting that the human race needs to be forcibly shaken into questioning our species’ environmental actions. Our hierarchy in the grand design of our planet’s natural order is thus judged by the consequences of these actions. In this respect, The Happening could be said to be a pop culture, post-environmentalist look at society through a lens which embraces environmental improvement, well-being, social justice, and healthy ecosystem services over globalization and notions of a society based on systems of outdated colonial politics.
The last thing to mention is the performance and acting. One of the reasons this film may have received such poor reviews is likely due to The Happening intentionally imitating the B-movie genre. This required the cast to provide performances equal to this style of movie which doesn’t always work or achieve what the director set out to do.
In conclusion, The Happening is a film that is highly underrated with an interesting environmental concept. Having said that, there are several scenes that will make you wish (with good humour) that the plants and trees around you released enough airborne toxins to make you forget some of the actors’ ham-like performances!
Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation