It's a pretty morning in New York City's Central Park. Until, that is, something horrible happens. An ill wind blows, crowds momentarily freeze in place—and then everyone in the park simultaneously commits suicide. A few minutes later, nearby construction workers begin walking off rooftops to their own bone-crunching deaths.
Soon the mysterious suicide epidemic sweeps through other areas in the Northeast. Reporters and experts on TV frantically debate the disaster's cause. Are terrorists attacking with a deadly nerve gas? Did some secret government program go wrong? Are electrochemical neurotoxins seeping into the water supply?
Elliot Moore isn't convinced any of the many theories are correct. He's a high school science teacher who always instructs his students to cultivate respect for nature. But as he and his wife, Alma, flee the city, he begins to notice clues that indicate the "attacks" may be coming from an unexpected source. Could this unidentified threat be coming from our natural surroundings, something, possibly, blowing in the breeze?
And if so ... where can you hide?
Elliot is a good man who cares about and tries to protect every person he comes in contact with. Even under duress, he refuses to break the law and steal food. In fact, with a few exceptions (noted below) virtually everyone in the movie tries to help one another during the crisis.
For example, when Elliot's friend Julian leaves his daughter in Elliot and Alma's charge, they protect her as if she were their own. Julian, for his part, goes off to an attack zone in the hope of finding and rescuing his missing wife. And when a young woman he's traveling with begins to panic, Julian tries to comfort and distract her.
Elliot and Alma have been dealing with increasing distance in their marriage, but they begin to pull together anew during their ordeal. Alma confesses to Elliot that she had secretly gone out for dessert with another man. And she tells the man, who keeps calling on her cell phone, that their nascent affair isn't going anywhere. By the end, the couple openly speaks of their love for each other.
Elliot and Alma are welcomed into an elderly woman's home. She has pictures of a cross, Jesus and other religious figures on her bedroom wall. It should be noted, though, that the woman is depicted as slightly crazy. Alma comments, "There's something Exorcisty about her."
After a construction worker watches his friends fall to their deaths, he exclaims mournfully, "God in heaven."
Alma wears a few low-cut tops, and several other extras with cleavage-baring shirts are also seen. We hear the punch line of a dirty joke about male anatomy. Reminiscing about their first date, Elliot and Alma talk about how a mood ring he gave her indicated that she was sexually aroused.
The Happening earns its R rating for close-up shots of people committing suicide in a variety of visceral ways.
Intense bloodletting includes a woman plunging a six-inch hairpin into her throat, construction workers walking off 10-story roofs (and then shown broken and twisted on the ground) and a man getting both arms ripped off by a lion at a zoo. Another unfortunate gets down on the ground in front of a moving lawn mower and is chopped to pulp. We watch a policeman put a gun to his head and glimpse his spurting head wound after he pulls the trigger. Another person slashes his wrist with a piece of glass; multiple hanging victims dangle from trees; and the driver of a Jeep accelerates and rams the vehicle into a tree, hurling himself through the windshield. An elderly woman repeatedly thrusts her head through windows, which slash her face and embed a shard of glass in one eye before she dies.
There's also one particularly graphic scene in which a man defends his property by shooting two aggressive teenagers at point-blank range, one in the chest and one in the head.
Crude or Profane Language
The words "a--hole," "b--ch," "p---y" and "h---" are used once or twice each. Jesus' and God's names are misused about 10 times (with one use of "God" combined with "d--n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
In a model home, a table is set with plastic wine glass props and a faux decanter of wine.
Other Negative Elements
Feeling mean-spirited after learning that Alma had dessert with another man, Elliot makes up a story about being attracted to another woman to get back at her, then says he was only joking. Elsewhere, Elliot begs a stranger for a ride, but the man drives away without a word. A woman says that her husband was using his binoculars to spy on the neighbors.
A nuclear power plant reminiscent of Three Mile Island is prominently visible in the background of one scene, visual shorthand for the environmental apocalypse the director strongly suggests humanity has brought upon itself. That's a message director M. Night Shyamalan goes to pains to make sure we get. [Spoiler Warning] And it's reinforced by multiple references to plants rapidly mutating and evolving to purge the earth of humankind.
M. Night Shyamalan built a huge fan base with his first few films. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs were fraught with suspense, explored spiritual themes and closed with final-reel twists that left crowds grinning and box office coffers brimming.
But their creator didn't like being saddled with the reputation he'd earned along the way: "maker of scary movies with a twist." So he turned his back on that successful formula to follow a different muse. Fans, however, weren't particularly keen on Shyamalan's new direction. His last picture, the fairytale-ish mermaid story Lady in the Water, landed at the cineplex with a disappointing belly flop, both critically and commercially.
Perhaps that reaction helps explain the writer/director's latest change in direction. For his sixth effort, Shyamalan says he went out of his way to avoid a surprise ending. The Happening does, however, have something else his fans might not expect.
Neither fairy tale nor PG-13 thriller, The Happening represents Shyamalan's first venture into R-rated territory. And he's embraced the "freedom" afforded by the less restrictive rating with a vengeance. "In the first [cut of the film]," he said, "we threw everything and the kitchen sink in. It would have gotten an X rating. Or been banned in the United States." So, of course, some of his most gruesome content was subsequently edited out. But make no mistake: There's still enough blood and guts splashed around here to label The Happening as a horror movie.
It might also be described as an environmental terror story, since the film plays out like a gory, nightmarish version of An Inconvenient Truth—with humanity being attacked for all the ways it has allegedly abused the natural order. A love story tagged on for dramatic effect humanizes things somewhat, as a sympathetic husband and wife doggedly pull their relationship back together amid mass suicides and general craziness. Still, we're encouraged to see ourselves as the enemy who's rightly getting what's coming for rampantly mistreating the environment. A sign advertising an opulent subdivision, for example, trumpets the message, "You Deserve This" in bright red letters—in case we somehow missed the point.
But the storyline ultimately feels sparse and unconvincing. It's like a Twilight Zone episode that has been unnecessarily stretched to 91 minutes as it posits a brutal premise in an attempt to deliver a heavy-handed sermon about our place on the planet. The result is a misguided message-movie mishmash that just doesn't work ... and one that assaults Shyamalan aficionados with an unprecedented amount of carnage along the way.