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Forget ‘Contagion’ — ‘The Happening’ Is the Real Coronavirus Movie

The world must truly be ending, because I’m recommending a Mark Wahlberg film

As coronavirus becomes only more serious, many horror nerds have made comparisons to Contagion, the 2011 film about Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon battling a worldwide epidemic. The parallels are certainly there: The CDC doesn’t know what it’s doing, the world is panicking and Jude Law is my pandemic crush. 

But in this time of apocalypse, I keep thinking back to another movie. One that came out three years earlier and stars Marky Mark. I am, of course, talking about The Happening, a sloppy 2008 thriller by M. Night Shyamalan that’s currently streaming on Hulu.

In The Happening, Philadelphia high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and John’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) to try outrun an airborne toxin quickly spreading across the Northeast. If infected, one commits suicide — by shooting, hanging or… lion attack. 

Still with me? As Elliot and Alma tour the East Coast countryside, they quickly learn the toxin isn’t a terrorist attack, as the media speculated. The toxin is — spoiler alert — a plant attack. Yes, the culprit is trees and flowers releasing a deadly infection to convince the world to stop fucking with the climate. Bet you feel shitty about not watering your houseplants now, don’t ya?

The film is bad. Like, bad bad, which has become something of a theme for Shyamalan. The Happening has an 18 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and a 34 on Metacritic. Even Wahlberg himself bashed the film. During a press conference with my ride-or-die Amy Adams for their 2013 film The Fighter, Wahlberg said of starring in The Happening, “Fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.”

As Christina Aguilera once said, “Maybe it was too ahead of its time for certain people.” Thing is, The Happening is all too relevant right now. Human carelessness for the climate results in government inaction, media extremism and widespread death. That’s what we’re facing with COVID-19.

The Happening is simply delightful doomsday porn. Even HBO snobs will appreciate Succession daddy Jeremy Strong as a military man who stands in the middle of a field and screams, “My firearm is my friend. It will not leave my side!” before shooting himself. 

Shyamalan chose not to show Strong’s character dying, so all we see is a wide-eyed Deschanel try to over-emote while Wahlberg describes the scene in his “serious-actor voice.” I’m sorry, but that’s pure camp. 

Maybe it’s because I first saw the not-so-thrilling thriller in the family Honda Odyssey minivan with a DVD player on our way home to the Chicago suburbs from visiting family in Wisconsin, but I have a soft spot for the film. It only helps that every time Wahlberg tries to be a serious actor, he comes off like he’s an NYU acting student cast in a buddy’s shitty short film.

We always tell ourselves that we’d flee if a worldwide threat actually occurred. We’d stop working, go find each other and survive, man. But here I am during a pandemic we’ve never seen before, 800 miles away from my family, in a small Brooklyn apartment with two roommates unappreciative of my dumb jokes. I miss my family, I’m worried about their health and I desperately want to believe things aren’t as bad as they are. 

So the only thing I can think to do is watch The Happening and make it my alternate reality. The world must truly be ending, because I’m recommending a Mark Wahlberg film. But tonight I’m strangely grateful for the budget Ben Affleck.