M. Night Shyamalan: Ambitious, Serious-Minded Talentless Disease
Not that long ago I was in a packed movie theatre in Toronto waiting to see Scott Pilgrim Against The World. As you might imagine, the audience was an assembly of Converse wearing Scott Pilgrim variations, all eagerly awaiting the projection of their own lives up on the screen. It was a savvy and fun crowd, practically cultish, and as the adverts and trailers scrolled by before the film, people chatted amiably about their weekend plans.
One trailer seemed to capture the attention of the audience, though. This movie projected a well-produced kind of grandeur, appearing to be the sort of picture in which Hollywood had invested heaps of money. It featured a bunch of people trapped in an elevator who, whenever the power flickered off, were being physically menaced by some unknown presence.
What was going on!!
It looked like dumb, but not horrible. You know, an autopilot movie—the sort of thing you’d go see when you wanted to turn off the brain and eat popcorn in the dark. And then, just when this trailer had won over a little bit of our united curiosity, the movie was revealed to be Devil, a product “from the mind of ” M. Night Shyamalan. As soon as Shyamalan’s name appeared on the screen, a collective groan, like all the air leaving a party balloon, emanated from the audience. It was as hilarious and sincere an expression of dismissal and disappointment, as I had ever heard, and it was crystal clear that Shyamalan’s career as a serious director was over.
M. Night Shyamalan emerged as a major player in Hollywood back in 1999 with the release of The Sixth Sense, which he wrote and directed. I loved this movie. It was an absolute factory of creepiness, the acting was stellar and the trick ending took me completely by surprise. Hell, I even went and saw it a second time in the theatre. Shyamalan was a genius, the next Alfred Hitchcock! I was all-in!
And so, I was all excited to see his next movie, Unbreakable. In the end, I liked it fine, but I wasn’t knocked out or anything. It was maybe just a little bit better, and stranger, than most mainstream offerings, but it didn’t excite me. But still, my enthusiasm for Shyamalan was not dampened, I was certain he was going to be great, and so I was keen and itchy to see Signs. Crop circles! Authentic looking aliens! Mel Gibson and a baseball bat! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a bit, it turned out. It was now clear that Shyamalan was working from a formula, and that although he was adept at creating tension, he was crappy at resolving that tension in any sort of satisfyingly adult way. In The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment was a dislocating, eerie and tortured presence, but by Signs, the children in Shyamalan’s movies had been Disneyfied. They were cute, and in embracing cuteness and conformity instead of perversity, Shyamalan—who is far from a penetrating thinker—was revealing himself little more than a Spielberg wannabe whose reach exceeded his grasp.
I was sufficiently disappointed in the direction of Shyamalan’s work that I skipped his next movie, The Village, but went to see Lady In The Water because somebody told me—insultingly, it turned out—that I reminded her of the Paul Giamatti character in the film. This film, in which Shyamalan played a genius that was going to change the course of humanity with his brain, was a mystifying and infantile piece of drivel. It was nerd central, a kid’s film that felt like it was written by a couple of stoned 14 year-olds over lunch hour. And this, this was Shyamalan’s great riposte against film critics? I was dumbfounded. Was this a joke?
But God fucking help me, I still went and saw Shyamalan’s next film, The Happening. In it’s favor, it was set in New York City, starred the normally reliable Mark Wahlberg and in the trailer featured bodies, almost lyrically, falling from skyscrapers. A virus that caused people to commit suicide had invaded America! What could go wrong?
Oh, right, M. Night Shyamalan could go wrong. This movie was difficult to actually sit through, and once again, we were presented with a visually interesting idea that was wrapped around a sentimental and simple-minded core. It was difficult to know whether it was a comedy or a drama, and in this case that was a bad thing, a very bad thing.
I was now completely done with Shyamalan, and I swore I would never again succumb to the visual brio of any of his slut trailers, and so I skipped The Last Airbender, which was savaged by all.
Perhaps all we really need to know about the auteur is contained within his name. Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan, he chose, like a precocious pre-teen Goth, to become M. Night Shyamalan. It’s a corny and pretentious appellation, I think, the sort of name a crappy Vegas magician would wrap around himself, and one that is unfortunately appropriate for Shyamalan.
At this point in his career, after his initial explosion of promise, he’s become little more than a laughing stock. With an absolute tin ear for humor, he creates B-movies with the witless sincerity of Ed Wood, all the while thinking that he’s actually providing his audience with ruminative, even prescient essays on the state of the world. It’s hard to imagine a director ever taking himself so seriously, yet saying so very little of intellectual substance. It’s embarrassing, and this very unfortunate marriage of ambition and talent, almost always results in a horrible, malfunctioning disease of a movie—but one that for a second, looks brilliant and interesting in a trailer.
But don’t be fooled, Jesus Christ, please don’t be fooled.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.
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