Monday, January 21, 2013

Director's Retrospective: M. Night Shyamalan Part 2

The second half of Shyamalan’s career is, to put it charitably, where everything went to shit. This means that the movies got simultaneously harder to watch and more fun to write about. The tradeoff is generally more than worth it, so let’s get started shall we?

Lady in the Water

Hey, I said generally more than worth it. Yes Lady is the movie that made me nearly give this idea up, or perhaps be a tiny bit dishonest and not actually finish it. But I persevered and made it through the movie, but it was pretty much a constant struggle. Lady was the moment in Shyamalan’s career that people started to realize something was actively wrong, that The Village and the bad portions of Signs were not flukes. Something was broken with Shyamalan, something that needed to be fixed before he could right his career. And it also let us put a name to this problem: Ego.

Now, I’m at least partially convinced that Shyamalan’s ego has informed almost all of his projects, something that I will go more into at the end of this article, but this is the first one where his ego completely consumed the entire movie. I mean, this is the movie where Shyamalan casts himself as misunderstood writer who’s writing will save the world and feeds a movie critic to a monster (I didn’t make a word of that up by the by). I mean, holy shit, how do you even get all the way through production without realizing how that’s going to play?

Aside from that, there’s not a whole metric ton to say on the movie. This is a rare movie where closer examination makes me feel dumber. The sheer amount wrong with this movie makes you think it’d be hilariously awful, but really it’s just sort of boring. Between the flat lifeless direction, the awful design on the monsters and the completely lack of mystery (the opening narration sucks the entire mystery out of the story, which feels like a post-production editing decision, trying desperately to salvage this mess of a movie) the movie ends up being a dull slog. I’m no stranger to bad movies, but it becomes infinitely harder to sit through them when they’re boring.

Oh and before we move on, a bit of trivia: One critic commented that if Shyamalan was going to use his kids as a focus group (Lady is supposedly based on a bedtime story he used to tell them) that he should just make movies for Nickolodeon. I guarantee you that, as the credits rolled on the last movie on this list, he was rocking back and forth in his seat sobbing “I didn’t mean it!” over and over.

The critical response for Lady was even worse than for The Village, and what’s more it was a financial failure too, barely recuperating it’s 70 million budget, even including international numbers. The writing was increasingly on the wall for Shyamalan: Shape up, or get ready for a nice long stay in director jail.

The Happening

This one is, in my opinion (brace yourself) the best movie Shyamalan did post-Signs. Not because it’s good (it’s not) but because it is the least bad. It succeeds partially because it has to be compared to what came before and after (an easy ride if ever I saw one) and partially because, amidst the dreck, it has a couple of really killer sequences.

The concept is probably my favorite part about this movie because, all joking aside, it is a fucking AWESOME concept. I mean, for those of you who don’t know, this movie is about an invisible gas that makes you kill yourself in whatever way is most handy. Can you imagine what a GOOD director would do with that (the name that comes to my head right away is John Carpenter, but there are plenty of people who could work it)? I mean, this lets you do whatever you want with it. Quiet dread? Yep. Big scale horror? Sure. Elaborate gore effect sequences? Definitely. And for the first 10-20 minutes Shyamalan seems to get what he’s got going on here.

Then the actual plot kicks in and it all goes straight to fucking hell. Oh there are still the odd good bits in it (the big sequence at the end with the old lady killing herself is actually really well put together) but the movie pretty much shits itself as it actively works to ruin a good thing. Zoe Deschenel (who has yet to prove she can really carry a movie) is impossibly miscast, Whalberg’s overblown sincerity that is pretty much a given for him is awful for the role, and the movie’s plot is working overtime to ruin everything. Once what’s going on is revealed (a legendarily stupid twist, even by Shyamalan’s standards) the movie jumps the shark so hard it winds up in orbit, with entire sequences literally devoted to outrunning the breeze!

It seems weird to say that this is the best movie in the second half of his career, given how much time I spent bitching at it, but that’s just because it really had so much potential and it was heavily devoted to squandering it. Anyway, while a critical flop, the film did make money, earning Shyamalan a brief reprise from director’s jail. It was not, however, to last.

The Last Airbender

Airbender represented a massive shift in Shyamalan’s direction. His first ever adaptation, his first ever time sharing screenplay credit, and his first attempt at making an action movie or a kids movie, this felt like, going in, a last ditch effort at saving his career. A director best known for slow burning mood pieces (even when he shouldn't be making slow burning mood pieces, IE The Happening) doing an action movie for kids, who are well known for being easy to bore? That screamed, to me, trial by fire, with his career on the line.

Well you know what happens when you fail a trial by fire?

Yeah. The movie is, to put it charitably, a complete disaster. A massive failure on every conceivable level, as an action movie, as a kids movie, as a standalone film and as an adaptation. I was never a huge fan of the show (although I did watch a bit; I like Toph, who doesn’t appear, and Azula, who has like 20 seconds on screen, and still manages to fail miserably) but even before I watched the show, I could tell this movie completely destroyed it.

I have limited space here, so I have to keep my criticisms short, but suffice it to say, there is a ridiculous amount wrong with this movie. The script is a big fat target, as roughly 100 percent of the dialogue is thudding, awkward, dead-in-the-water exposition. I’m actually wondering if this film is even aware of what ‘show, don’t tell’ is (a character uses “As you know,” a total of twice. I am not making that up.) No one gets any character development or interest, as the entire movie is spent explaining itself to the audience. As a result the action sequences which take up wayyyyyy too much of the movie (and range, in terms of quality, from crap to nice-try) are completely dramatically unengaging. I don’t care about who wins or loses, cause I don’t care about the characters, and thus the movie is boring.

There are a host of other issues, mostly on an adaptation level. Episode long mysteries are rushed into 3 minutes, which renders them useless (and should have been cut). The film also has a deadly, deadly, DEADLY serious tone, which is violently at odds with the films occasional attempts to include some of the shows comedic aspects (even if they weren’t terribly written). And then there’s the weirdly racist casting, which would be a little more forgivable if the kids were giving good performances, but all of the kids are fucking awful. And then there’s the terribly written dialogue and the scenes that seem to go nowhere and…and…

Ugh. It would take me literally pages to describe everything wrong with this movie. You would have to break it down literally scene by scene to get everything. Every casting choice, every line of dialogue, every scene, every moment is just wrong. Shyamalan claims to have desired to do this movie based on his daughter loving the show, but I imagine after this hit theatres, there were a lot of awkward dinners.

Despite the brutal (and I do mean brutal) critical response to this movie, it did make money…but not as much as anyone was hoping. Most of it’s money was made in overseas markets like Russia, where they dump their crap to try and make money with it, since Russia is one of those markets that’s starved for content. So while the movie made money, it did it essentially by cheating, it lost money at the home box office.

But it wasn’t it’s mediocre box office returns (from a movie that was hoping, nay expecting, to do Harry Potter level business), the nearly universal critical revilement or the solid chunk of Razzies the movie won, that forced Shyamalan into exile. No, that was the next movie to bear his name, Devil.

Devil is excluded from this list because it’s not really his movie. He came up with the idea and produced it but it was written and directed by a couple of other people (neither of whom have any real winners on their resumes...well maybe Hard Candy). I’ve not seen it, heard mixed things about it (leaning negative), but really it wasn’t anything about the movie that sunk him. It was audience reaction. The trailers for Devil proudly touted his name in them, but it was reported that when his name came up on screen, audiences started laughing. Yeah. The writing was on the wall: Shyamalan had failed his trial by fire and he had burned.

So now, three years later, he’s back with After Earth. What changed, I hear you ask, to let him out of Director’s jail? Well, go check that trailer again. See his name anywhere? Yeah, that’s what I thought. He’s sharing screenwriting credit with two people: Stephen Gaghan, who has both real winners on his resume (Syrianna, Traffic) and some massive failures (Havoc, The Alamo) and Gary Whitta, who has never written a movie in his life. All of the Producers are affiliated, in some way or another, to Will Smith (Will himself, James Lassiter, his longtime business partner better known as Jazzy Jeff, and his brother in-law). Shyamalan seems like the odd man out which spells, more than anything, someone who was brought in to direct it and stay out of the way. It might signal a career resurrection if he can keep himself in check so…high hopes, low expectations eh? Oh and M, if you’re reading this: I know it’s too late to change anything, but at this point we’d all be MUCH more surprised if you don’t pull the “It’s Earth in the past and Will/Jaden is actually God” twist at the end of After Earth. Just saying.

So what is the issue with Shyamalan, the thing I hoped to uncover in my bold exploration (I should stop milking it)? In a word? Ego. Now, I think a little ego is a good thing for a director, and even his good movies have an air of egotism about them. Sixth Sense and Unbreakable feel like someone who thinks he has a unique insight to film, delivering his thesis’s on ghost stories and superhero movies, respectively. But too much ego can sink you fast. It feels churlish of me to keep going back to Lady’s “critic fed to a monster and Shyamalan as visionary writer who will save the world” but that I think sums it all up. I think he thinks he’s a genius and all of us are the ones who don’t get it. That is beyond even needing a more involved producer, that’s straight up intervention material. And as I’ve said multiple times about my idol, Stanley Kubrick, when you’re that much of an asshole you’re either a genius or you’re unemployed.

Well despite…difficulties, I am still enjoying these bits, but I have no idea who I’m going to do next. So if you’ve got any suggestions, drop them in the comments box.

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