Inspired by this great article—seriously, it is much better than the article you are about to read—I decided that a.) I have things to say about M. Night Shyamalan and b.) you all are damn well going to hear (well, read) those things.)
Gazing into the Night. The M Night. OOOOOOOOOOO! Snap.
The Sixth Sense- The Sixth Sense is, I think, quite clearly the most well thought out and structured of Shyamalan’s films. Everything means something, from the use of red to the variation is Willis’s wardrobe, to the placement of camera perspective.
Despite that though, the film is also simultaneously lighter on its feet than most of M. Night’s other offerings. His tendency to introduce concepts in the first act and return to them in the third is present here, but the strings are less visible, the revelations more earned and less foisted than they would be in his later efforts. As Filmspotting discussed in last week’s episode #555, Shyamalan tends to direct in such a way as to make it seem as though he does not trust the audience to see the connections between events, lines, or symbols as quickly as he does. (Think of him as a more symbology but just as message oriented Eastwood, unable to let a point go by without announcing it with a thunderclap) That lack of faith (no pun intended) in the audience is almost entirely absent from Sense. Shyamalan allows the color red to be closely linked to supernatural events without ever having to make it explicit. The keen eye will catch, but the film never grinds to a halt to hold our hands on it.
Finally, in the tradition of all the best “twist” ending pieces of pop culture, the surprise revelation that caps the movie’s climax actually does not invalidate the rest of Sense. The movie was interesting and capable of holding our attention before the reveal. The twist only serves to add dimension, not as a flop sweat soaked lost moment attempt to make a bad movie “feel” good (See, I don’t know, Secret Window for that sort of nonsense.)
Unbreakable- Unbreakable, but for a few missteps, including one at the movie’s close, might actually be a better movie than Sense and certainly would qualify as my favorite. Unfortunately, those missteps do occur.
The biggest is the ending. Not the twist. The twist is smart and—like Sense before it—comes into a movie that already has us and adds dimension. Nothing is undermined or added in the last moments by the twist, it only serves to offer us a new lens to consider the previous nearly two hours of conversations and action under.
No, the problem with Unbreakable is the literal end.
There are some who argue that Unbreakable is, in essence, a two-act movie, that it ends just as it should be starting its third act. I am not as much of a structuralist and, as such, I have always felt that that particular critical approach is overthinking. It’s using a bulldozer when a shovel will do.
The problem isn’t a lack of third act, it’s a lack of a true end.
In the final minutes, Willis’s David Dunn has realized that Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass—the man who “discovered” him and put him on the path of being a real life super hero—is, in fact, a real life super villain. And then the movie ends with two title cards explaining Price’s capture and sentencing. That’s it.
The hero and villain are moments away from some sort of clash and BOOM! title cards.
One may be tempted to say that this is a purposeful act, a rejection of the typical super hero fare. That Shyamalan is thoughtfully and intentionally refusing to indulge in the usual violence overcoming violence climaxes associated with the super hero—and truthfully, action movie in general—genre.
One might be tempted
But one should not.
Intention is all well and good, but the fact is that if it does not make the screen, it is not part of the movie. So even if the director intended to circumvent the cycle of violence at the center of many films of the genre, it does not matter if you cannot take the viewers along with you on the ride.
Instead of a bold refusal to comply with conventions—and again, that’s purely a theory—it comes across as a kid wrapping up his essay moments before class. He thought he had more time, he wrote incredibly elegantly from 4 of those 5 paragraphs, but now home room is ending and he’s going to have to hand in this paper at the start of history class. He can’t leave the essay without an ending and expect to pass so he chooses instead to wrap it in two sentences that do not reflect the tone or thoughtfulness of the rest of the piece.
It was, in a word, disappointing.
Signs- Ok, so the only thing I want to talk about when it comes to Signs is water. Much snickering hay has been made of the aliens in Signs coming to Earth, a planet mostly covered in water, despite themselves having an allergy or some kind of aversion to the liquid.
This hay is wrong.
Or, at least, there are more than enough reasonable justifications for it that the fact that it is still leveled as a complaint—often a deal breaker complaint—makes me more than a little annoyed.
First, just taking an in-film reason, the movie is replete with references to pathogens, contaminants, etc. in the water. While the movie does set it up to make it seem as though the daughter is being overly paranoid about things, it is also a films about unlikely connections between events, people, ideas. In this context, it hardly seems beyond the pale that the daughter might be right about toxins in the water, but mistaken about who they are toxic to, that is these aliens, not us people.
The invaders, therefore, are not idiots but, rather, unaware of the ways in which “our kind” of water could prove fatal for them.
Of course, them even knowing what water is seems like an assumption we can’t afford to make. For all we know, they came from a planet without water. Yes, for us, it is life sustaining, but for them, it is deadly. So who’s to say they didn’t live in a world devoid of an element we take for granted?
There’s also the possibility that they knew what water was, knew it could hurt them, and, in desperation, still had to invade Earth. Any port in the storm, if you will.
Anyway, I quite like Signs and the water thing is no issue at all to me.
The Village- A lot of people don’t like The Village. Maybe even most. I think it is sumptuous. I think its sense of atmosphere is incredible. I love the theme of the ways we hurt the ones we love in the name of “protecting” them.
And the twist is bad.
It just is. It is the first twist ending for M. Night than seems to be just a twist for twist’s sake. It seems to come out of nowhere with little textual or symbolic evidence preceding it. It fails to add depth to the movie or to inspire a second viewing to catch how it was built to. It is the type of twist that destroys the film that preceded it, and that seems to be the case for so many with it comes to The Village.
Lady in the Water- Murky in story and appearance. Self-important. Dumb. The kind of movie where the director casts himself as the hero of humanity and has a character who only works out one half of his body. It’s like a fever dream of arrogant mediocrity told in a world of constant dry ice smoke.
I can’t properly stress to you the number of ways this movie is a deplorable failure.
The monster design work is interesting though. I wish Shyamalan hadn’t draped them in so much darkness because it really obscures what could be a truly striking image of a monster born of the landscape.
The Happening- Some truly impressive visuals (the men jumping from the skyscraper in droves, the grounds crew hanging, via extension cord, from trees) in service of a bad movie. Poorly constructed, terribly acted, seemingly unfamiliar with the human elements it employs. Some people appreciate it as a good bad movie. I find that very difficult. It’s too bad too because actually the end packs a nice “this isn’t over” creepy punch. Except, by that point, all you want it to be is over.
The Last Airbender- No. Not even for this.
After Earth- A joyless airless affair. Someone else’s passion project. It feels nothing like a M. Night film and, perhaps, that’s just as well.