Next week marks the beginning of the nerd mecca known as Comic-Con. No, I won’t be there, and yes, I’m very upset about it. But one of the movies I’m most forward to hearing more about is M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth.” He’s been out of the spotlight for a while, but I think it’s time for people to start getting excited about him again. Now I know there are a lot of critics of the guy, and you may be one of them, but I want you to think back…
I want you to think back to a time, specifically the summer of 1999: 9/11 hasn’t happened yet, Napster makes its internet debut, Lance Armstrong wins his 1st Tour De France, Christine Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” is #1 on the charts and we all met a little guy named SpongeBob Squarepants.
And something else happened that summer: On August 6th, “The Sixth Sense” came out in movie theaters everywhere and the world was introduced to M. Night Shyamalan. I want you to think back to this time, because I want you to remember what it was like to be in awe of this film and the man who made it. Maybe not all of you were, but if you saw it when it came out it’d be pretty hard to deny just how huge it was and how much everyone was talking about it. Like it or not, it was a phenomenon. I wan’t you to remember this, because it seems like everyone has forgotten it. The Shyamalan everyone knew back then is not the same guy everyone knows today. Today’s Shyamalan is the guy who created The Happening & the “original” Avatar (based on the anime cartoon show). I don’t really think “The Happening” is as bad as most people made it out to be, but I’ll deal with that later.
The Sixth Sense came out and it blew everyone’s collective mind. It was terrifying, smart, beautiful, melancholy, interesting, well-paced, wonderfully shot, masterfully acted, and then came that delicious twist at the end. It took the film to a whole other level. M. Night didn’t invent the concept of the twist, but it immediately defined him as a filmmaker. And that’s where the problem began. The Sixth Sense was a massive success, both critically and commercially. So of course, studios wanted more of that. They specifically wanted that equation because it added up to a lot of money. So after just his 2nd film (his first was a movie with Rose O’Donnell called “Wide Awake”), Shyamalan already gets pigeon-held as “the twist guy” and then every script he writes after that has to fulfill that. As a writer, I know that sounds mighty daunting. That is a lot of pressure and expectation. Maybe he wanted to make more films like that, but probably not every one. And after a while, he got less passionate about doing the same tropes, and because of that, the films suffered a bit. Like making a copy of a copy of a copy, the fifth one won’t be as great as the first. So I am here in defense of the man, who has unfortunately become more of a joke – I once was in a movie theater where a trailer for a film he produced came on and the whole theater laughed out loud when his name was shown – than he deserves to be. I believe that he’s still brought a lot more creativity to an industry that is completely saturated with remakes and sequels. If you take his films on their own, and you let go of whatever M. Night stigma you may have in your head, I think I might be able to show you there is a lot of merit there.
Unbreakable (2000) : This is actually in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. I happen to think it’s even better than The Sixth Sense. This could be because of its subject matter: the complex and interesting relationship between a superhero and his arch nemesis, the super-villain. I am total comic book geek and even beyond that, I love a modern take on the Superhero genre. It’s been done so many ways that seeing someone take a much-needed, different stab at it is refreshing. Davis Dunn (Bruce Willis) is our “superhero”, a man who possesses superhuman qualities that he hasn’t really had a chance to process in his lifetime. He can’t be hurt and has the ability to see the bad things people have done when he touches them. Elijah, or “Mr. Glass”, (Samuel L. Jackson) is the villain. Elijah was born with an incredibly rare disease which makes his bones incredibly brittle and easy to break. He has to spend most of his life shut out from the world and retreats to his comic books that his mother gives him. This sets him off on a quest to find his anthesis, the ying to his yang, because he believes that if there is someone like him – someone who is entirely breakable – then there must be someone who is entirely unbreakable. Shyamalan really understands the world of comics and uses subtle touches to bring home the feeling that this is about comic superheroes, but he does it in a muted way, so as to not punch you in the face with it. I don’t want to give away every detail, but there are many. It’s also a wonderfully shot film, with shots making every aspect of the film interesting and suspenseful to watch.
Signs (2002) : Listen, I didn’t like the ending that much, either. It wasn’t entirely smart or unique, but I don’t think that has to take everything else away from the film. What I love most about this movie is that it takes a plot we’ve seen many, many times – an alien invasion – and sets it in a rural town, with a small family, and we never leave them. We are always in that home, in that town, with that family, going through the emotional responses that they go through. The only time we get a glimpse at the outside world is when they turn on the TV or the radio. We experience it with them. I thought that was so brilliant and special. It felt much more real to me. Shyamalan also creates a wonderfully scary atmosphere, adding in classic horror movies ideals, using music to create a scary mood and never revealing the monster till the very end. In fact, the birthday party scene still scares the beejesus outta me.
The Village (2004) : I remember when this movie was coming out I was so excited about it, because it looked like it was going to be really scary. All the marketing they did for the film portrayed it as being this horror/thriller movie about scary monsters living in the woods outside this village. And after seeing the movie, you realize it’s not entirely about that at all. I still don’t know why they did that, as it gave a completely incorrect expectation for what you were going to see, which is something I attribute to the mixed reviews about it. But also the fact that at that point, people were expecting the twist. The problem is that an expected surprise is, in addition to an oxymoron, inevitably disappointing. But Night really knows how to use a camera to tell a story and has a firm grasp on pacing and tone, as well. He brings up lots of compelling issues and points about fear and how it controls us. Also, the soundtrack, done by the brilliant James Newton Howard is so haunting and beautiful that it really sent the movie to another for me.
Lady in the Water (2006) : M. Night called this a grown up bedtime story, and if you approach it with a more open-minded, whimsical sense you might find it to be more enjoyable. I wasn’t madly in love with it the first time I saw it, but I did see what Night was doing, and really loved the small details, once again. I did feel like some of his ego showed more in this movie (he plays the writer who saves the world, basically), but again, his ideas are still incredibly insightful. I feel like at this point in his career, he had started to lose a lot of that brilliant execution he had that started with The Sixth Sense, but he still was able to draw out great ideas and stories. Lady in the Water has a lot of heart, and Night really gets the myths and fantasy that are inherent in fairy tales.
I don’t know how deeply I can defend The Happening, because it didn’t have a lot of the things that make Shyamalan movies great: the acting, music, writing, and camera work were all lack-luster. But when I said I didn’t think it was the worst thing ever, it was because I thought the general idea was interesting and scary. It came out in the summer action season, and although it dealt with apocalyptic themes, it was probably too thoughtful for the movie-goers at the time. It was very science-fictiony, but had a parable-like element to it, trying to show the audience a fantastical version of what will happen to us if we continue to abuse our Earth the way we do. It wasn’t over-the-top exciting, but it had a great message and allowed the audience to think about how they might respond to such an event. I know i’ll be forever in the minority here, but while it’s not an amazing film, it’s not the disaster most people make it out to be.
I still think M. Night Shyamalan had a lot of the same qualities that made Hitchcock great, and I for one can’t wait for his next film. It deals with a post-apocalyptic Earth, which is a genre of film I’m completely addicted to, but seems like he’s going to be focusing on the relationship between a father and his son, just set on Earth 1,000 after it’s been abandoned. He is steering himself away from doing the twist ending and, the cherry on top, is that Will Smith is starring in it. Will Smith! Americas Sweetheart! Honestly, has he made a bad movie? So give Shyamalan another shot; I think you’ll be surprised.