Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Strange Case of M. Night Shyamalan

In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan made The Sixth Sense, which became the surprise hit of the summer. Not only did it make a lot of money, it also secured several Oscar nominations – including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay – which is almost unheard of for a supernatural thriller. Part of the reason The Sixth Sense became such a hit of course was the twist ending – which managed to do what great trick endings do – completely shock and surprise the audience, and yet make perfect sense once it was revealed. Any idiot can come up with a from out of left fielding ending that surprises the audience – the trick is to make the ending logical, and yet also prevent the audience from seeing it coming. Shyamalan pulled that off perfectly.

My opinion on The Sixth Sense has never wavered over the years. I think it’s a superbly made and very well acted thriller and I did love the ending – but without the ending, it’s clear to me that The Sixth Sense would have long since been forgotten. It’s a very good film with a great ending. His follow-up to The Sixth Sense wasn’t as highly regarded with critics or audiences – but to me is
Shyamalan’s best film. That would be Unbreakable (2000) – another supernatural thriller with a twist ending, but this time the whole movie is at the same level as the ending. Bruce Willis has arguably never had a better leading role in his career, and Samuel L. Jackson is just about perfect as the man who guides him through the surprising things he learns about himself. I’m not joking when I say that Unbreakable reminded me of Hitchcock – and there are few thrillers that I would say that about. It is a masterful film – and it’s a shame that the film wasn’t a bigger hit, which is what led Shyamalan to abandon his plans for two sequels. Unbreakable is the perfect “Issue #1” of a comic book franchise – and while it stands on its own as a masterwork of its genre, it’s a shame we didn’t get to see what came next.

Two years after Unbreakable, Shyamlan had another big hit on his hands with Signs (2002). Again, I think this is a superior film of its genre, and while it’s easy to make fun of some of the more sincere moments in the film – and at times, the movie does take itself too seriously – it’s still one of the better movies of its ilk. It had a wonderful performance by a pre-crazy Mel Gibson, and another one by pre-crazy Joaquin Phoenix. While the ending wasn’t the shock that his first two films were – it’s still surprising. And Shyamalan had many great moments in the film that I found scary as hell when I saw them (the videos, the knife under the door, etc.).

On the basis of these three films, I though what we were dealing with was a modern Hitchcock – a director who could make thrillers that didn’t depend on gore, and could be watched even after the secrets are revealed. Yes, at times Shyamalan’s dialogue was ponderous, and the films were all a little self-serious, but still, Shyamalan did more in those three films that most directors in the genre do in their career.

And then it all went to shit.

The follow-up to Signs was The Village (2004), and while the film still made money, it almost immediately became a joke. A blind Bryce Dallas Howard wandering around in the forest, a ridiculous performance by Joaquin Phoenix, clearly phony “wolves” and the most ridiculous twist ending of Shyamalan’s career – The Village was clearly a step backwards from Shyamalan. It had all the markings on a director who took himself too seriously, and was stuck in a rut creatively. People expect a twist from Shyamalan, so he kept giving it to them. But sooner or later, your luck runs out – as it did with The Village.

Most other directors would probably decide to do something completely different at this point. And surely, this was not the only genre that interested Shyamalan – he made two films before The Sixth Sense (Praying for Anger in 1992 and Wide Awake in 1998) that were completely outside the supernatural thriller genre (and remain unseen by me).
But instead of doing that, Shyamalan doubled down. In 2006 he made Lady in the Water, and was almost universally slammed by the critics for it – and worse for him, it didn’t make much money. Personally, although I certainly think Lady in the Water is a hugely flawed film, it’s one I kind of like. It’s a strange fairy tale, wonderfully photographed by Christopher Doyle, and containing two excellent performances by Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard. Yes, the whole film critic character (Bob Balaban) was a stupid idea – and Shyamalan had to know he was going to be blasted for it – as was Shyamalan casting himself as a “writer who will save the world” – because it shows enormous ego, and he’s not much of an actor. Oh, and calling the creatures “Narfs” and “Scrunts” was also silly. Still, I kind of admired Lady in the Water for fully embracing its fairy tale storyline – for making a completely non-cynical film in a very cynical time. It wasn’t close to great, but it’s not quite the travesty people said it was.

That would come two years later – when in 1998 Shyamalan made The Happening. If you wanted to make a straight faced parody of all the worst things about Shyamalan’s films, you couldn’t do better than this. With overly serious performances by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, to ridiculous deaths, an even more ridiculous twist ending, and inane dialogue about hot dogs, The Happening was the film where finally even Shyamalan realized he had gone too far – it was time to do something else.

Personally, I thought this was a good idea. In The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and parts of The Village and Lady in the Water, Shyamalan had shown he was a good, sometimes great director. But his last three films had also shown that as a writer, he was simply out of ideas. Sometimes when a director takes a step back – and embraces a different type of movie, from a writer other than himself, he can turn things around.

This didn’t happen for Shyamalan. His 2010 film The Last Airbender is arguably his worst. Based on a popular animated series, The Last Airbender is a horribly written and acted movie. To add to its problems, it wasn’t shot in 3-D, but converted to 3-D to cash in on the recently emerged craze – this made an already dimly lit film look downright dark and incomprehensible at times. This wasn’t the only problem with the direction – there was hardly anything right about it – but it didn’t help.

Which brings us up to date. Shyamalan flirted with other projects – he was attached to Life of Pi for years, until he backed out, thinking the novel was unfilmable (Ang Lee proved him wrong, and has a Best Director Oscar to prove it). Shyamalan’s latest film, After Earth, starring Will Smith hits theaters this week. Will it get him back on the A-List? Who knows – it certainly doesn’t look great, but at this point in his career, good could be considered a major win for Shyamalan.

After Signs, it appeared like Shyamalan was well on his way to becoming a director like Steven Spielberg (I believe Time Magazine’s Cover even proclaimed him so). He looked like he was going to become that rare “star” director who could sell a film on his name alone. Those directors are few and far between – perhaps only Spielberg and Tarantino can do so right now, although one could argue Scorsese as well. But the previews for After Earth don’t even mention it’s director at all – hell, I saw multiple trailers, and didn’t realize it was a Shyamalan film until I looked the film up on IMDB. After four bombs in a row, it’s clear the studio’s marketing department sees his name as a liability.
But part of me is still rooting for Shyamalan. Unbreakable really is that good, and The Sixth Sense and Signs are close as well. He is a talented filmmaker – and although it’s fairly undeniable that his ego led to his downfall, as he kept plowing forward with increasingly ridiculous plots, perhaps now that he has been humbled he can make a comeback.

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