The first stage is confused speech.
The second stage is physical disorientation, loss of direction.
The third stage is … fatal.—School Principal in The Happening
M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Happening, is a very, very rare movie: the hero is a high school science teacher, and he is played by a well-known actor. That was enough to have me in the theater on opening day. The previews hinting at a natural phenomenon causing bizarre human behavior also intrigued me.
Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot Moore, a high school biology teacher in Philadelphia. Early one spring morning, reports of an attack in New York’s Central Park come in and schools across the region are closed. Soon a similar event begins in a park in downtown Philadelphia. People in the affected area become confused, then stand still or walk backward. Finally, they engage in some action to take their own life, often in a terribly violent way. (Construction workers walk off of high buildings, a policeman shoots himself with his service weapon … you get the idea.) Elliot and his wife Alma (played by Zooey Deschanel) flee the city, hoping to avoid the attack by getting to a remote farmhouse in central Pennsylvania. The rest of the film is their flight into the countryside and the violent death of almost everyone they meet while on the run.
As I noted earlier, the fact that the hero of this movie is a high school science teacher brought me to the theater. The first time we see Elliot Moore, he is leading a class discussion about the (real) disappearance of honeybees around the world. As an engaging, dynamic science teacher, he works to elicit possible explanations for this scientific mystery from his students. Brainstorming like this could lead to fruitful discussion in a science class, so I was happy to go along with it. I also appreciate a film attempting to get the public interested in human impacts on environment.
Unfortunately, Moore responds to a student's comment with: “Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it'll be just a theory.” This dreadful sentence works to reinforce one of the most problematic misunderstandings between scientists and the general public: a theory in science is not an unsubstantiated guess, it is an explanation of a process or phenomenon that has a great deal of evidence backing it up. Many of the arguments over teaching the theory of evolution in schools are based on this misunderstanding. Scientific theories are hard to come by and are well supported; there’s nothing "mere" about them.
Moments later, Moore redeems himself (and Shyamalan's script) to some degree by reviewing a process for answering scientific questions, which I think is worthwhile. Moore encourages his students to identify variables, design an experiment, make careful observations, take measurements, and interpret the results. Later, when he is trying to understand what triggers the attacks, Moore runs through this process and applies it to his “real-world” problem and finds a potential explanation. His hypothesis (not theory) is put to the test later, and the evidence supports it.
The film’s key premise is that plants have rapidly evolved the ability to communicate with each other and to release chemical signals that cause self-destructive human behavior. Plants have done this because they see human beings as a threat. While the rapid convergent evolution of many plants to do the same thing is nonscientific, and the idea that organisms evolve toward what they “want” or need is problematic, what might be most surprising to most viewers is that plant communication for defense is real. As is briefly noted in the film, researchers have found that tobacco plants being eaten by certain caterpillars respond to enzymes in the caterpillars’ saliva by releasing chemical signals into the air. These signals from the tobacco plants attract a wasp which then lays eggs in the caterpillar, killing it (see this article from Chemical & Engineering News for more details).
Plants send out signals to which other organisms respond, and that response may be beneficial to the plant. If Shyamalan wanted to create a world more closely modeled on reality, stepping on tundra lichen would attract polar bears, or disturbing kelp would lure great white sharks, either of which would provide cinematic interactions between humans and nature.
Teachers of biology or environmental science could use the central ideas of The Happening to foster discussion of interactions among species in living systems, and they could explain how the science teacher hero makes good use of scientific thinking to solve a problem. At the same time, the sloppy use of the term theory and misunderstanding of evolution should be discussed.
Note: The Happening is rated R by the MPAA, so many of your students will not be able to see it without a parent or guardian. Also, be sure to check your school district policy on showing segments of R-rated films before using any clips in the classroom.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science
and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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