The Rise and Fall of M. Night

The year was 1999. I found myself in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania with my friends, staying overnight at a bible camp where my old college buddy Rey was to be married. There weren't many places to go the night before the wedding, save for a 24-hour Wal-Mart(with guns!) and a mall with a movie theater. And so, a group of us eventually found ourselves shuffling into a darkened theater a few minutes into a new movie, just in time to see a psychologist played by Bruce Willis get shot by one of his patients. The story jumps ahead a bit, presumably after Willis has recovered, and finds him in a small town trying to help a disturbed young boy(Haley Joel Osment) who claims to see dead people. The film was The Sixth Sense, a dark and atmospheric tale ripe with symbolism and very intentional props, splashes of red with a door knob or a balloon breaking the otherwise desaturated palette of the film. It was a masterpiece that made M. Night Shyamalan famous, with a twist ending with Willis' character that could have gotten us kicked out of the theater when Rey's brother shouted, “He's [SPOILER OMITTED]?! This is the best movie EVER!” And there lay the problem, because the pressure was on for this new director. Could he keep up this level of filmmaking with future efforts?

Unbreakable, his second effort, is a film that didn't do well in theaters, but gained a cult following on DVD. I'll be less vague about the twist in this one, and say that Unbreakable is in fact a comic book movie in disguise, a story in which a Superman walks among us without knowing he's Superman. Bruce Willis, perhaps the true secret to M. Night's success, plays David Dunn, the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck that claimed the lives of all on board, and didn't leave a scratch on him. As David wrestles with this, looking back on his life and realizing he's never been sick or injured, the film also follows an art dealer named Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Price is an avid comic book fan, well verse in all the archetypes of heroes and villains. He suffers from fragile bones, and the kids he grew up with mocked him, calling him Mr. Glass. He becomes a guide to David, as does David's young son, and it becomes clear that great power does require great responsibility. But David does have one basic elemental weakness, as did Superman and many other nigh invulnerable heroes, and also a hidden archenemy, someone who is his equal and opposite, as surely as Lex Luthor was Superman's. It is this reveal, this moment of perfection when the viewer, particularly those of us who've read as many comics as Jackson's character, realizes what we've been watching the whole time, how all the pieces were right in front of us, how we missed as many clues as David did. It was intended to be a trilogy, but poor reviews and poor reception at advance screenings hurt the director, and ultimately a block of text was added after the completed film, explaining what happened to these characters next and tying it up in a neat little bow. Whether the studio's decision or that of a director with thin skin, this violation of the “show don't tell” rule may have been his first, but it would not be his last. Except for that tacked on text ending, Unbreakable, in my opinion, is one of his best films, on par with The Sixth Sense, and even the modern comic book movies that ground the characters in the real world and take them seriously, such as The Dark Knight. Tragically, it's real flaw is that it was well ahead of its time, but the damage was done. The director began to doubt himself, and began a slow decline in which each film would be worse than the one before it.

I liked Signs. It wasn't as great as Shyamalan's first two movies, but it wasn't terrible. He lost Willis, but had Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, two good actors in their prime who'd yet to lose favor with their fans for crazy words or actions. After ghosts and superheroes, M. Night tackled aliens, and again his dark and moody style, with characters speaking in hushed whispers and truncated sentences, built a great atmosphere. It was a classic psychological drama in which what we imagined was worse than what we saw. I still recall jumping along with one of the characters when an alien walks by in the background during a newscast. Put yourself in those shoes, imagine reports of strange phenomena, and then suddenly, right there on television, you see a freaking alien walk by, not someone in a costume, but a live broadcast of a real extra terrestrial. Unfortunately, the twist in this film is that this advanced race visits a planet with their weakness in abundance(the same weakness as David Dunn's, actually), and sci fi geeks tore it apart. It wasn't quite a miss so much as a fumble, and there was still a chance of recovery.

But then he made The Village. I took the advice of a friend and avoided in theaters, because she described it as “just awful”. When I finally did rent it, I was mystified to see normally decent actors speaking stilted deliveries of pilgrim-era dialogue with occasional modern accents or slang slipping through. It seemed ripe with mistakes and continuity errors, and I could care less about whatever beast in the woods kept these people living in fear in their community. In the end, it turned out that there was a very intentional reason why these people talked the way they did, a hint of the deliberateness the director showed in his first film. Intentional or not though, it wasn't really that good. I didn't regret seeing it; I just knew I never had to see it again.

Lady in the Water touches on the fantasy genre, and has the saving grace of Paul Giamatti in the lead role as a building superintendent who makes a startling discovery in his pool. There's no real twist in this one, only Shyamalan appearing in a role more crucial than his usual cameo appearance, and the fact that this is mostly new mythology. What made me like the film was learning from the special features that the mythology came from bedtime stories the director had told his children, and that he had done the picture as a labor of love for them. He could be forgiven for straying from his roots because there was heart behind it, even if most of the actors were bafflingly wooden and emotionless.

And so, I gave him another chance with The Happening, which had a really cool trailer and looked like a return to form. There was just enough to entice me, to make me want to find out what was really going on, why people were turning suicidal. I'm still not 100% sure, but I think plants got made at us for damaging the environment, and released some toxic spores or something that made people mad. So there were a lot of scenes of people in fields running from the wind. Seriously. I found myself cracking jokes through the whole thing, which I never do, and at least one of our friends never showed up to see movies with us again after that. I know Mark Wahlberg can act; I've seen him do it. The same is true for John Leguizamo and others in the film who seem to be in a daze or half asleep. Was it the director? Was he telling people to not blink, to deliver lines as though they were read from cue cards? The Happening was one of the worst films anyone has ever made ever in the history of films, perhaps was meant to be a B movie or a spoof, and resulted in a long-winded criticism from me as soon as I got home, registering my disapproval on the internet like Comic Book Guy. Worst. Movie. EVER.

The good news is that Shyamalan has yet to make a movie as bad as the happening. The bad news is that The Last Airbender is only marginally better, and does a disappointing job adapting the first season of a beloved animated series into a movie. The show was appreciated by adults and kids because it was an epic tale in which lives were lost, the world itself was at stake, and it never talked down to the audience. There was solid continuity, growth, and real character arcs. In the movie, we get an abridged version with actors so bad, one has to question the director's assertion that he chose the best actors even if their ethnicitys differed from their animated counterparts. Names are inexplicably pronounced wrong, and major portions of the story are told in a listless, voiceover narration. There are some decent effects, though nothing special, and I'm glad we didn't spend the extra money for 3D. Ice often looks fake and plastic, and I thought I saw a string once or twice when a group levitated a rock with unnecessary effort. There are large gaps where a fan can tell which episodes are skipped. Someone will be captured, and the next scene be with his friends with a voiceover telling us “yeah, they reunited after he got away.” One character is reduced to saying “We have to go.” for every scene change, which would make for a great drinking game. One of my friends had never seen the cartoon, and the rest of us advised him not to judge it based on what we'd just watched.

Shyamalan may have just spent his last chance. He had a story already in place, something storyboarded for him. Taking a three-season cartoon and making a trilogy should have been a breeze, but he managed to suck all the life out of it. The guy who was the comic relief in the show never cracks a smile, so the two times something funny happens to him it seems out of place and depressing. I don't want to see this become a trilogy. If it does, and I do subject myself to the other movies, it won't be in theaters, and it won't be for a long time. Someone like Peter Jackson would have been a far better choice to adapt this saga. I have friends who've worked for Nickelodeon who panned the film. The guys I went with thought they might have been fanboys with a biased opinion. As it turned out, everything they said was spot-on. I probably should have seen Toy Story 3 instead, for which I've heard nothing but good things. But I had to see for myself, had to see how a great cartoon translated to live action, and if M. Night could finally redeem himself. The little bits of the source material that broke through the amateur, emotionless line reading and endless expository dialogue and narration were the only elements that saved it from being worse than The Happening, making it his second worst movie. The fact that he messed up something that was so good to begin with makes me question my assessment. I kind of liked the music at times, and that's me trying to find something nice to say. There were some decent interpretations of the animal characters on the show; wish we'd seen more of them. I think a dragon was the only decent actor in the movie.

What happened? Did the reviews on Unbreakable break M. Night Shyamalan? Has he struggled with self-doubt ever since? Or was he always a one or two hit wonder to begin with? I can't understand this steady decline, and the part of me that kept hoping he'd make another Sixth Sense or Unbreakable is now all but dead. He burned bright once, but burned out quickly. The twist ending is that we've all been watching this ember drift to the ground, thinking it's going to flare up again. But there is only ash, and soot, and no one will ever bend that debris back into something solid. After The Happening I was a little angry. Now I'm just a little sad.


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