And What Kind of a Middle Name Is “Night”?August 18th, 2011 | Posted by in Uncategorized
The recent birthday of writer and director M. Night Shyamalan got me thinking about his career. I can’t think of any director that burst onto the public with such force, and within such a short time–a decade–has become someone whose name causes more laughter than interest. I haven’t seen his first two features, Praying with Anger and Wide Awake. But since hitting it big with The Sixth Sense, he’s not only become a punch line, but someone people take glee in seeing fail. I should admit here that I like him. His bad movies are, with one exception, at least interesting, and a couple of his good ones are underrated. But I have become skeptical. For him to come back, he’ll need to reverse a trend his movies have shown since Signs.
Of course, The Sixth Sense is the one everyone likes, though Unbreakable is the better movie. It’s not as tightly written as The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable presents an original take on the superhero film, as well as a demonstration of Shyamalan’s visual maturation. But by the end of Signs, its message is not only a greeting-card sentiment (everything happens for a reason) but the movie is heavy handed about it. The Village is severely underrated. While the twist is, admittedly, too weak to justify a movie, getting there is quite compelling.
But it is Shyamalan’s films after leaving Disney, none as good as these earlier ones, that are more interesting to me. With Signs and The Village, there was a kind of instability and closing off from the outside—if they had gone just a bit farther, tried a bit harder, they would have failed (and more than a few believe they do). His next two films show none of that restraint.
Lady in the Water is incredibly interesting, and for that reason disappoints me more for making no sense than for being bad. It posits itself as a fairy tale based on a bedtime story, yet the story within a film that Shyamalan writes isn’t a story at all. It’s a complicated mythology that takes most of the movie to explain. (If it worked as a bedtime “story,” it would only be because any kid would be bored to sleep after twenty minutes of listening to its rules and exceptions, all involving creatures with nonsense names like “narf”–clearly, Shyamalan hasn’t seen Pinky and the Brain–and “scrunt.”)
I love movies that create their own mythologies, especially when they explore those ideas in the real world. With that, as well as the movie’s attempts to play with the idea of story itself (the characters realize they are living in this mythology and try to use the rules of storytelling to figure out their roles) make it something I’d normally love. But it simply doesn’t come together.
At least some of what is awful about The Happening seems to be intentional. With the idea of plants that set out to destroy humanity, it tries to be a kind of The Day of the Triffids, with climate change instead of Commies. The acting is stilted to a ridiculous degree. There’s a hilarious moment when, after an old woman accuses him of planning to murder her, Mark Wahlberg responds with what is possibly the least convincing denial in movie history. Though the tone feels off, the mannered performances from usually reliable actors and an unusual musical score suggest these things might have been on purpose.
But these problems aren’t fatal to the movie. What really makes it a failure is that it seems to have been written by someone who has never had any interaction with a human being. Obvious questions go unasked and normal human thoughts and reactions are ignored in favor of plot necessities. When your movie includes a scene of people trying to outrun the wind, you’re going to need to meet the audience more than halfway. This undercuts a self-sacrificial ending that would have had some real power if the context wasn’t so ridiculous.
The Last Airbender was his first blatant stab at a blockbuster, and it’s also the only one that doesn’t really feel like a Shyamalan film. It’s the only one that is truly awful—cheesy, badly acted, and boring. The Happening was two of those (as ridiculous as it was, I was never bored by it), but at least it was competent and it felt like there was a purpose behind it. The Last Airbender is awful seemingly by accident. Admittedly, the action scenes are a bit refreshing. Where today’s trend is toward shaky and chaotic camerawork, Shyamalan shoots these sequences almost elegantly, letting the audience take in and appreciate what’s happening. James Newton Howard’s score is good as well. That’s about all the praise I have, as it contains nothing deeper, or even the desire for anything deeper, to make it worth writing more about.
Shyamalan has always been a better director than writer. I’d love to see him make something written by someone else. His earlier films had characters at the center, but that’s changed. Though this trenad began with Signs, it wasn’t until Lady in the Water that his movies really seemed built to play in his head, with the audience sitting outside trying to find a way in. His films have become about the concepts, with the characters simply there as pawns. It’s funny that that’s basically the plot of Lady in the Water, especially considering the movie seems completely unaware of it.