The Happening: Bad Science, Mediocre Movie

The science behind The Happening poses a few actions that could be heavily disputed by botanist in the science community. Here are the five flaws of the Happening: plants can talk to each other, plants can target enemies, plants can wage war against genetics, plants can hear us, and plants can breathe poison. These aspects of the movie not only create the main premise of how plants can retaliate against humans but also show the hyperbole of facts that Shyamalan uses to create a pleasing or entertaining movie.

The first flaw of the movie states that plants have the full means of communicating with one another. The movie takes a stand that plants can talk or communicate in some way. Throughout the course of The Happening, the foliage gets furious at the mere presence of humans. They act first in Central park and by attacking the urban masses, then work their way to  prairie fields ad going after desolate country roads. The pattern of deaths leads the nursery owner to surmise that plants are communicating and then releasing toxins to specific areas.

“If you take a very broad definition of communication, which is defined as any type of signal that is made by one organism that can be sensed by another, then yes, under some circumstances, plants can communicate,” says Joe Armstrong, a professor of botany at the University of Illinois. However, it is not a communication like a conversation that humans may have. Instead, plants sense the presence of other vegetation through photoreceptors and chemoreceptors. For example, when a plant eating organism or herbivore chews on a plant, the plant can respond in two ways: chemically which is used to deter the herbivore or a volatilely which is an airborne emission that is sent to other plants with the necessary chemoreceptors to sense the emission. This communication allows other plants to respond with protective chemicals before the threat is present. The same chemicals are not produced when leaves are simply torn or damaged. Some plants have been shown to recognize other nearby plants that may be competing for sunlight or other resources. For example, ripening fruits on certain trees can release hormones that can cause a negative response in surrounding plants, thus, decreasing the plants chances of survival (Sadava et al, 2011).

There have also been studies conducted by scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario that suggest that plants may have a social life that we don’t understand. The scientist suggests that the Great Lakes sea rocket weed can recognize plants related to it. Susan A. Dudley, an evolutionary plant biologist who conducted the study, says that plants “often live with relatives and, like animals, can increase their fitness by benefiting relatives.” And that the communication is “neat stuff, but hardly adds up to a cross country network of conniving, chatty trees” (McCarthy, 2008).

            This is all evidence of plants ability to communicate; however, the extent to which The Happening portrays plant communication is extreme. Plants cannot communicate over long distances and the ability of plants to formulate a massive attack that seems to be cohesively planned is impossible. Shyamalan took a liberty here in the movie by implying that plants have a full network set up for clear and fast communication. Obviously the lack of science in terms of plant communication was counteracted with gruesome scenes of clever suicides.

The second flaw in The Happening occurs when the nurseryman claims that plants can target specific threats. He cites tobacco as an example, which he insists releases certain wasp-calling pheromones in the presence of caterpillar. This pheromone thus calls upon the wasp to show up and kill the caterpillars.

The problem comes from the fact that the film implies that the plants were purposefully and knowingly attacking humans. In reality, plants cannot respond to negative stimulus in this manner.  “Plants send out volatile hormones when they are attacked,” Dudley says. “The signals are evoked by a combination of damage and insect saliva. Predators such as wasps use this cue to find their prey.” In other words wasps have developed sensory receptors that detect injured plant hormones. Therefore, it is not the plant that’s calling the wasp to its defense it is more like the wasp sensing that the plants may contain caterpillars due to the releasing of the hormone (Sadava et al, 2011). The movie personifies plants as having the conscious ability to identify and then target potential enemies thus giving them the ability to ward of threats. This lack in scientific fact is a flaw in not only science but also a in the thought process or misunderstanding that humans have about the ability of plants.

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