M. Night Shyamalan writes like a film school student.
Honestly, I wish he was a film school student, because then I could say he has promise, and be excited about the possibilities. If I saw one of the suicide scenes from The Happening in a student thesis project, I think I'd sully my drawers. This is a guy who knows how to communicate visual ideas in very powerful, visceral ways.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan is not a film school student. He is a filmmaker who has been on the radar for nearly a decade, with half a dozen Hollywood movies under his belt, all of them with budgets in excess of $50 million dollars; and for all of the power of his visual ideas, he seems incapable of even conceiving, much less communicating, intellectual ideas anymore.
The quality of Shyamalan's storytelling has decreased on an almost exponential curve since The Sixth Sense, which I thought was fantastic. I don't care if it was based on an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, it was a fine piece of genre filmmaking. But the success and praise of Sixth Sense seems to have gone to his head, and he thinks he can do no wrong.
Unbreakable was flawed, but still watchable. The payoff was a bit of a letdown, and Bruce Willis' ability to see into peoples' secrets via touch was a straight rip-off of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, but I'm still up for a go at Unbreakable 2.
Signs had tremendous promise in its premise, but was more aptly named than I think MNS realized, because it was here that we started to see the signs that he was losing his way. His cameo became a pivotal character with quite a bit of screen-time. Look, we know you think you're the next Hitchcock, but limit yourself to walking a dog in the background, okay? We started to see that he wasn't really trying anymore in terms of the story, not only creating a bizarre deus ex machina (having a little girl develop a strange, never-happens-in-real-life quirk of leaving half-filled glasses of water all over the place, for no other reason than that the end of the movie wouldn't work otherwise), but alerting the audience to the fact that it was such by having it literally communicated in a "revelation from God."
And I'm late to the party on this, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out again that these superior alien beings -- who have been observing and studying this planet for at least 40 years, and therefore must be aware that 70% of the planet consists of a substance that is lethal to the touch for them -- saw fit to land anyway, and walk around naked.1 Apparently not a single one of them could envision a scenario where that wouldn't go well, whereas I'm hard-pressed to envision a scenario in which it would.
Then there was The Village...for fuck's sake. First of all, he plagiarized another kids' story. This time a Grade 5-8 novel, Running Out of Time. Spoilers on that page.2
Did you see the trailer but not the film? About how this village bordered a forest filled with some kind of intelligent monsters, who lived a tenuous coexistence until the creatures decided that they'd gotten tired of the villagers' stupid faces and slathered red X's on their doors, in a substance suspiciously blood-like, as a warning that they'd better get the fuck out tout de suite? The tagline, Run. The truce is ending?
Yeah, the movie's not about that. At all. It pretends it is for the first third of the movie or so, but it's not. I wish like hell it was, because that is a fucking fantastic premise. But it isn't. It's about some blind girl going on a journey to get penicillin to cure her boyfriend, who got stabbed by her retarded friend. It was like Shyamalan spent $20 million dollars in marketing to get everyone in the theatres, only to RickRoll them a third of the way in. I wish he had RickRolled us, in fact, because then I might have at least sat in awe at the sheer balls of it.3 After all, a RickRoll is just a practical joke. It was clear with The Village that he actually thought he was doing good work.
And that's the real problem with Shyamalan. He thinks he's doing good and be damned to the critics. Lady in the Water made this point blatantly, with one character being a movie critic who didn't know what he was talking about (another character remarks "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?") and another character, a writer, being the hope for salvation of all mankind (and played, I'm sure coincidentally, by Shyamalan himself).
Maybe people who respond negatively to your movies aren't idiots, MNS. Maybe you're making bad movies.
But of course, the closest he'll get to admitting that he made a bad movie is by saying, as he has with The Happening, that he did it on purpose. "It's the best B-movie you'll ever see," he says.
Okay, first off: fuck you. Don't tell me what the best B-movie I've ever seen is. I'll be the judge. Technically Star Wars is a B-movie. Likewise Raiders of the Lost Ark. And Croenenberg's The Fly. And Carpenter's The Thing. Your movie is not even qualified to lick the balls of those films, much less stand in their presence as an equal, much less claim to have surpassed them.
I'd say that he should have said it's the best B-movie he's made, but not even that is accurate. That would be The Sixth Sense. The Happening is just another embarrassment in an ever-lengthening lineage.
Secondly, that's not what you were saying before it came out. You were saying this was the first R-rated movie you ever made and you were pushing it to make it as hard and scary as you could. Don't turn around just because you failed and pretend you meant to. That's George Lucas crap.
The Happening is about how the plants decide to kill everyone by emitting a toxin that removes the human preservation instinct. Okay, a little pulpy, but I can deal with that premise. People not having the sense to protect themselves, however, is not the same as people intentionally stabbing themselves in the neck, jumping off buildings, or lying down in front of a riding lawnmower.
The premise is kind of a rip-off of Stephen King's 2006 novel Cell, in which a cell phone signal called "the Pulse" somehow shuts down the higher functions of the brain, turning everyone who uses a cell phone, from the moment the Pulse hits onward, into violently insane madmen and -women. (Also they become telekinetic. Or something. That part's not appropriated in Happening.)
It should be no surprise by now that Shyamalan is a plagiarizing hack, nor that he went after Stephen King's idea, nor indeed that Cell did it better. (Although I suppose we should give him credit for at least ripping of a book for grown-ups this time around.) The acting in The Happening is laughably shitty, the plot and actions of the characters who are not supposed to be the insane ones make no logical sense, and instead of being intense, it's intensely boring.
But from a visual standpoint, Shyamalan has promise and I honestly think he can be great, but he has to get it out of his head that he is great no matter what he does. He is only great if he does a great job, and he has to be willing to listen -- if not to everybody, then he has to find some person or small group of people who can get through to him.
And he has to stop writing his own scripts. Please somebody stop him from writing.
Because it already sounds like he's fucking up The Last Airbender, and someone needs to do something.
- I thought about putting a spoiler alert on this post, but fuck it. If you haven't seen these flicks by now, it's obviously not high on your list of priorities, and besides the twists are retarded. I just saved you an hour and a half.↩
- There. My conscience got the best of me on the spoiler thing. It's still retarded.↩
- I'm aware that RickRolling hadn't been invented yet. (Oh, for those earlier times.) You get my drift. ↩