Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, seems ripe for parody, perhaps even upon delivery in theaters. The “can’t even” bizarre energy of this movie is off the charts and bounces back and forth between hilarious camp and head-scratching seriousness with several frustrating and absurd artistic decisions by Shyamalan. If you viewed this movie as a strange comedy, then you would be right. If you viewed it as an existential horror movie, then you would be right. If you viewed it as a heightened satire on high-concept Twilight Zone parables, then you would be right.
We follow a family on a vacation to a Caribbean resort. Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are keeping secrets from their two children, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and eleven-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). The parents are planning on separating and Prisca has a tumor, though benign for the time being. The hotel manager offers an exclusive secluded beach for those who would really enjoy this special experience. Guy, Prisca, and their kids join another family with a six-year-old daughter, a married couple, and an old lady with her dog, and they drive off into the jungle. Except this beach is not what it appears to be. There are strange artifacts of past visitors, and every time people try and pass back through the path to leave, they pass out. Also, everyone is aging rapidly, about one year for every 30 minutes elapsed. The children become adults, the elderly succumb first, and everyone worries they may not ever leave.
Old is not one of Shyamalan’s worst movies but it’s hard to classify it as good without attaching conditional modifiers. It might be good, if you enjoy movies that are campy and schlocky. It might be good, if you enjoy movies that throw anything and everything out there just because. It might be good, if you enjoy movies that produce a supernatural concept, drop rules established whenever convenient, and then try to wrap everything up neatly with an absurdly thorough explanation for everything. It might be good, if you think Shyamalan peaked with 2006’s Lady in the Water. This is going to be a polarizing experience. I think Shyamalan doesn’t fully understand what tone he’s going for and how best to develop his crazy storyline in a way that makes it meaningful beyond the general WTF curiosity. Even when it goes off the rails, Old is entertaining but some of that is unintentional. There are points where it feels like Shyamalan is trying for camp and other points where it feels like he is aiming for something higher and just can’t help but stumble, Sisyphean-style, back again into the pit of camp absurdity.
The premise is a grabber and takes the contained thriller conceit that Hollywood loves for its cheap cost and applies a supernatural sheen. It’s based upon a French graphic novel, Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, though Shyamalan has taken several creative liberties. It’s an intriguing idea of rapid aging being the real trap, and it forces many characters to confront their own fears of mortality and aging but also parental failures. Every parent likely thinks with some degree of regret about how quickly their little ones grow up. These adults have to watch their children rapidly age in only hours and not have any way to stop the relentless speed of time. The extra level of fear is produced by the fact that mentally the children are still where they began that morning. Even as Trent ages into the body of a teenager, he still has the mind of a six-year-old, and that is a horror unto itself. As his body rapidly changes, his parents are helpless to stop this terrifying jolt into adulthood and unable to shield their child from the terror of physical maturation but being trapped in the mindset of a child who cannot keep up with their mutating body. There are definite body horror and existential dread potential here, though Shyamalan veers too often into lesser schlocky thriller territory. For him, it’s more the mystery or the foiled escape attempts than actually dwelling on the emotional anxiety of the unique predicament. There’s enough born from this premise that it keeps you watching to the end, even as you might be questioning the actions of the characters, their ability to somehow miraculously guess the right answers as a group about what is happening, and the inconsistency of the rules about what can and cannot happen on this accursed beach.
There is one sequence that deserves its own detailed analysis for just how truly bizarre and avoidable it could have been, and to do so I will need to invoke the warning of spoilers for this paragraph. One of the other six-year-olds, Kara, gets a whole traumatic experience all her own that is morally and artistically questionable. Midway through the movie, Kara (Eliza Scanlan) and Trent (Alex Wolff) come back from a jaunt off screen together and they’re older and Kara is clearly pregnant. Given the rules that were established, that means that these six-year-old children experimented with their newly adult bodies to the point of fertilization (oh God, writing this makes me wince). I must reiterate that these characters are still six-years-old. Before you start realizing the gross implications, Kara is quickly entering labor and within seconds the baby is suddenly born and within seconds the baby just as suddenly dies silently from, what we’re told, was a lack of attention. What he hell, Shyamalan? Did you have to throw a dead baby into your movie to make us feel the visceral horror of the situation? It feels tacky and needlessly triggering for some moviegoers. This entire sequence doesn’t impact the plot in any meaningful way. Kara could have died in childbirth because of the circumstances of the beach. That would be tragic but matter. Just having her get suddenly pregnant and then suddenly the recipient of a deceased child seems needlessly cruel and misguided. And then, in the aftereffect of this trauma, Kara’s mom tearfully recounts her first love, a man she still thinks about to this day but doesn’t understand why. What does this have to do with anything? Re-read this entire scenario and let it sink in how truly uncomfortable and gross it comes across. It could have been avoided, it could have even been better applied to the characters and themes of the story, but it’s empty, callous shock value.
Another hindrance of Old is that the characters lack significant development and nobody ever talks like a recognizable human being. As Shyamalan has embraced being more and more an unabashedly genre filmmaker, he’s lost sight on how to write realistic people. You see this throughout 2008’s The Happening with its curious line readings and clunky, inauthentic dialogue being legendary and unintentionally hilarious (“You should be more interested in science, Jake. You know why? Because your face is perfect.”). I feel like Old is the most reminiscent of The Happening, the last time Shyamalan went for broke with ecological horror. The way these characters talk, it sounds like their dialogue was generated by an A.I. instead. “You have a beautiful voice. I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older,” Prisca says, which is a strange way for a parent to say, “I like what you have but wishing it was better.” She also has the line to her husband, “When you talk about the future, I don’t feel seen.” There’s also a running theme of characters just blurting out their occupations as introductions, “I’m a doctor,” followed by, “I’m a nurse,” like it’s career day on the beach. Frustratingly, all the characterization ends once the people wind up on this fated beach. Many of these characters are simply defined by their maladies and professions. This character has seizures. This character has a blood disorder. This character has a tumor. This character has MS. Noticing a pattern? You would expect that with such a unique and challenging conflict that it would better reveal these people, push them to make changes, especially as change is thrust upon them whether they like it or not. Imagine your uncle being cursed with rapid aging but all he does is still complain about his lousy neighbor. That limited tunnel vision is what Old struggles with. And one of the characters is a famous rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan but without a hint or irony or showbiz satire. Mid-Sized Sedan!
The way Shyamalan shoots this movie also greatly increases its camp appeal. This movie is coursing with energy and contrarianism. Shyamalan is often moving his camera in swooping pans and finding visual arrangements that can be frustrating and obtuse. Sometimes it works, like when we have the child characters with their backs to the camera and we’re anticipating how they have changed and what they might look like. Too often, it feels like Shyamalan trying to interject something more into a scene like he’s unsure that the dramatic tension of the writing is enough. There are scenes where what’s important almost seems incidental to the visual arrangement of the shot. Some of the sudden push-ins and arrangements made me laugh because it took me out of the moment by making the moment feel even more ridiculous. This heightened mood to the point of hilarity is the essence of camp and that’s why it feels like Shyamalan can’t help himself. If he’s trying to dig for something deeper and more profound, it’s not happening with his exaggerated and mannered stylistic choices being a distraction.
The ending, which I will not spoil, tries to do too much in clearing up the central mysteries. It feels overburdened to the point of self-parody, having characters pout expository explanations for all that came before and supplying motivation as to what was happening. Still, Shyamalan cannot keep things alone, and he keeps extending his conclusion with more and more false endings to complicate matters; the more he attempts to tidy up the less interesting the movie becomes. I would have been happy to accept no explanation whatsoever for why the beach behaves as it does. The best Twilight Zone episodes succeed from the mystery and development rather than the eventual explanation (“Oh, it was all a social experiment/nightmare/whatever”). Once you begin to pick apart the explanation with pesky questions, the illusion of its believability melts away. I had the same issue with 2019’s Us. The more Jordan Peele tried to find a way to explain his underground doppelganger plot, the more incredulous and sillier it became.
Old is a Shyamalan movie for all good and bad. It’s got a strong central premise and some memorable moments but those memorable moments are also both good and bad. Some of the moments have to be seen to be believed, and some of those moments are simply the odd choices that Shyamalan makes as a filmmaker as well as a screenwriter. It’s hard to say whether the movie’s weirdness will be appealing or revolting to the individual viewer. It feels like camp without intentionally going for camp. Rather, Shyamalan seems to be going for B-movie schlock whereas his older movies took B-movie premises and attempted to elevate them with themes, well-rounded characters, and moving conclusions (don’t forget the requisite twist endings). The worst sin a movie can commit is being boring, and Old is rarely that. I can’t say it’s good for the entire duration of its overextended 100 minutes but it does not prove boring.
Nate’s Grade: C-
M. Night Shyamalan has had a wildly fluctuating career, but after 2017’s killer hit Split he’s officially back on the upswing and the Shyamalan bandwagon is ready for more transplants. At the very end of Split it was revealed it had secretly existed in the same universe as Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s so-so 2000 movie about real-life superheroes. Fans of the original got excited and Shyamalan stated his next film was a direct sequel. Glass is the long-anticipated follow-up and many critics have met it with a chilly response. Shyamalan’s comeback is still cruising, and while Glass might not be as audacious and creepy clever as Split it’s still entertaining throughout its two-hour-plus run time.
It’s been 18 years since David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovered his special abilities thanks to the brilliant but criminally insane Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a.k.a. “Mr. Glass.” David has been going on “walks” from his security day job to right wrongs as “The Overseer,” the rain slicker-wearing man who is incapable of being harmed (exception: water). He looks to stop David Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a.k.a. The Horde, a disturbed man inhabited by over dozens of personalities. David Dunn and Kevin are captured and placed in the same mental health facility as Elijah. The three are under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in a specific form of mental illness with those who believe to be superheroes. She has only so many days to break through to these dangerous men or else more extreme and irrevocable measures might be taken.
Shyamalan has a lot on his mind and spends much of the second half exploring the classical ideas of superheroes via Dr. Staple and her unorthodox therapy treatments. She’s trying to convince each man they are simply wounded individuals and not superior beings blessed with superior powers. Because the audience already knows the fantastic truth, I’m glad Shyamalan doesn’t belabor this angle and make the crux of the movie about her convincing them otherwise. The second act is something of a sleeping predator, much like the wheelchair-bound, brittle-bone Elijah Price. You’re waiting for the larger scheme to take shape and the snap of the surprise, and Shyamalan throws out plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing (I’ve never been more glad that convenient news footage of a new skyscraper opening meant absolutely nothing for the final act setting). Part of the enjoyment is watching the characters interact together and play off one another. The conversations are engaging and the actors are uniformly good, so even these “slow parts” are interesting to watch.
It’s fun to watch both Willis and Jackson to slip right into these old characters and conflicts, but it’s really McAvoy’s movie once more, to our immense benefit. Between a ho-hum character who has accepted his ho-hum city guardian role, and an intellectual elite playing possum, the narrative needs Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde to do its heavy lifting. McAvoy is phenomenal again and seamlessly transitions from one personality to another, aided by Dr. Staple’s magic personality-switching light machine. The command that McAvoy has and range he establishes for each character is impressive. He reserves different postures, different expressions, and different muscles for the different personas. I was genuinely surprised how significant Ana Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds) was as the returning character Casey, the heroine that escaped Kevin’s imprisonment in Split. She’s concerned for the well being of Kevin, the original personality who splintered into many as a means of protection from his mother’s horrifying abuse. I was worried the movie was setting her up to be a disciple of Kevin’s, looking to break him out having fallen under an extreme Stockholm syndrome. This is not the case. She actually has a character arc about healing that is important and the thing to save Kevin’s soul. There are in-Kevin personalities here with more character arcs than the other famous leads.
Shyamalan has been improving in his craft as a director with each movie, and stripping down to the basics for a contained thriller gave him a better feel for atmospherics and visual spacing with his frame. With Glass, the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Us) smartly and elegantly uses color to help code the characters and the development of their psychological processes. The direction by Shyamalan feels a bit like he’s looking back for a sense of visual continuity from his long takes and pans from Unbreakable, which places greater importance on the performances and precise framing.
I think the disappointment expressed in many of the mixed-to-negative critical reviews comes down to a departure in tone as well as the capitalization of being an Unbreakable sequel. Both of the previous movies in this trilogy were less action vehicles than psychological thrillers that emphasized darker human emotions and personal struggle. Shyamalan purposely grounded them, as much as one can, in a sense of vulnerable realism, which only made both of their endings stick out a little more. The movies weren’t about existing in a superhero universe but more so about unknown heroes and villains of comic-sized scale living amongst us every day. It was about the real world populated with super beings. Because of that tonal approach, Unbreakable was the epic tale of a security guard taking down one murderous home invader and surviving drowning. It was more the acceptance of the call, and part of that was getting an audience that had not been fed as much superhero mythos as today to also accept that secret reality hiding in plain sight. 18 years later, movie audiences have become highly accustomed to superheroes, their origins, and the tropes of the industry, so I was looking forward to Shyamalan’s stamp. I think our new cultural environment gave Shyamalan the room to expand, and Glass moves into a less realistic depiction of these elements. It’s not the gritty, understated, and more psychologically drawn dramas of his past. It’s more comfortable with larger, possibly sillier elements and shrugging along with them. There are moments where characters will just flat-out name the tropes happening on screen, with straight-laced exposition. It can lead to some chuckles. I think fans of the original might find a disconnect in tone between the three films, especially with this capper. They might ask themselves, “I waited 18 years for these characters to just become like other supers?”
And that refrain might be common as well, namely, “I waited 18 years for this?” While it’s inherently true that a filmmaker doesn’t owe fans anything beyond honest effort, an extended time between sequels does create the buildup of anticipation and the question of whether the final product was worth that excited expectation. Fans of Unbreakable might be somewhat disappointed by the fact that Glass feels like more of a sequel to Split. McAvoy is top-billed for a reason. Perhaps Shyamalan had more of a desire to foster the continuation from a recent hit than an 18-year-old movie. Whatever the rationale, David Dunn gets short shrift. After the opening segment, he’s being institutionalized but he’s not actively trying to escape. As a result, the attention focuses far more onto our two villains, and one of them doesn’t says a word until an hour into the movie. This further exacerbates the disproportionate emphasis on Kevin Wendell Crumb (and The Horde). As stated above, I think that’s where the emphasis should be because he has the most storytelling potential, and McAvoy is amazing. However, if you’ve been waiting 18 years for another face-off between Mr. Glass and the Unbreakable Man, then this might not seem like the special event you dreamt about. Shyamalan still has difficulty staging action sequences. The fights with David and The Beast are pretty lackluster and involve the same non-responsive choke hold moves. There are like half a dozen characters involved with the climactic showdown but half of them are bystanders waiting to be tapped in when the narrative needs them to console their fighter.
I think the ending will also turn some people off for what it does and what it doesn’t do (I’ll avoid spoilers but will be speaking in vague terms this paragraph, so be warned, dear reader). The ending opens up a larger world that leaves you wanting more, even if it was only a passing scene acknowledging the resolution to the final actions. This holds true with an organization that you get only the smallest exposure to that adds to the deluge of questions seeking answers. It sets up a bigger picture with bigger possibilities that will ultimately be left unattended, especially if Shyamalan’s recent interviews are to be taken at face value. What Glass does not do is play with the implications of its ending and explore the newer developments. The ending we do get is indeed ballsy. I gasped. Shyamalan takes some big chances with the direction he chooses to take his story, and I can admire his vision and sense of closure. On the other end, I know that these same decisions will likely inflame the same contingent of disgruntled and disappointed fans.
Shyamalan’s third (and final?) film in his Unbreakable universe places the wider emphasis on the three main characters and their interactions. While McAvoy and Kevin get the light of the spotlight, there are strong moments with Elijah and David Dunn. There are some nifty twists and turns that do not feel cheap or easily telegraphed, which was also a Shyamalan staple of his past. It’s not nearly as good or unnerving as Split, the apex of the Shyamalanaissance, but it entertains by different means. If you were a fan of Unbreakable, you may like Glass, but if you were a fan of Split, I think you’ll be more likely to enjoy Glass. It might not have been worth 18 years but it’s worth two hours.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s hard to even remember a time when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t a cinematic punching bag. He flashed onto the scene with the triumviri of Sixth Sense, Unbreakabale, and Signs, what I’ll call the Early Period Shyamalan. He was deemed the next Spielberg, the next Hitchcock, and the Next Big Thing. Then he entered what I’ll call the Middle Period Shyamalan and it was one creative and commercial catastrophe after another. The Village. Oof. Lady in the Water. Ouch. The Happening. Yeesh. The Last Airbender. Ick. After Earth. Sigh. That’s a rogue’s gallery of stinkers that would bury most directors. The promise of his early works seemed snuffed out and retrospectives wondered if the man was really as talented as the hype had once so fervently suggested. Then in 2015 he wrote and directed a small found footage thriller called The Visit and it was a surprise hit. Had the downward spiral been corrected? With a low-budget and simple concept, had Shyamalan staked out a course correction for a mid-career resurgence. More evidence was needed. Split is the confirmation movie fans have been hoping for. An M. Night Shyamalan movie is no longer something to fear (for the wrong reasons), folks.
Split is all about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man living with twenty-three different personalities in his head. One of them, Dennis, kidnaps three young ladies, two popular and well-adjusted friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) and the introverted, troubled teen, Cassie (Anna Taylor-Joy). The girls wake up locked in a basement and with no idea where they are and whom they’re dealing with. Kevin takes on several different personas: Barry, a fashion designer, Hedwig, an impish child, Patricia, a steely woman devoted to order, Dennis, an imposing threat undone by germs. The altered personalities, or “alters” as they’re called, are preparing for the arrival of a new persona, one they refer to as simply The Beast. And sacrifices are needed for his coming.
Right away you sense that Split is already an above average thriller. This is clever entertainment, a fine and fun return to form for a man that seemed to lose his sense of amusement with film. The areas where Split is able to shine that would have normally doomed the Middle Period Shyamalan are in the realms of tone, execution, and ambition.
Very early on, Shyamalan establishes what kind of feeling he wishes to imbue with his audience, and he keeps skillfully churning those sensations, adding new elements without necessary breaking away from the overall intended experience. You’re meant to be afraid but not too afraid. It’s more thriller than outright horror. There is a level of camp inherent into the ridiculous premise and in watching a grown man act out a slew of wildly different personas populating his brain. Shyamalan swerves into this rather than try and take great pains to make his thriller a more serious, high-minded affair. His camera lingers on the oddities, allowing the audience to nervously laugh, and he allows McAvoy extra time to sell those oddities. It’s especially evident in the introduction of the Patricia alter ego, where McAvoy uses a lot of faux grave facial expressions to great comic effect. Shyamalan no longer seems to fear being seen as a bit silly. Shyamalan even knows in some ways that he’s making a genre picture and an audience expects genre elements or the reversal of those elements. At one point, Dennis insists that two of our girls strip to their underwear because they’re dirty. I shook my head a bit, believing Shyamalan to sneak in some PG-13 T&A. Except it’s just enough for some trailer clips. Shyamalan’s camera doesn’t objectify the teen girls even after they run around in their skivvies. He doesn’t have to indulge genre elements that will break the film’s tone. He also doesn’t have to overly commit to being serious. He can be serious enough, which is the best way to describe Split. It treats its premise and the danger the girls are in with great seriousness, but the movie still allows measures of fun and intended camp. The cosmos themselves don’t have to be responsible for all of time’s events to click together to form his climax. It can just be a young woman trying to escape a psycho thanks to her wits and her grit.
Execution has also been a nagging problem of the Middle Period Shyamalan (affectionately his Blue Period?). I may be one of the few people that thought 2008’s Happening had some potential even as is if another director with a better feel for the material and less timidity embracing the full possibilities of an R-rating had been aboard. With Last Airbender and After Earth, both movies were exceptionally bad from a number of standpoints, but Shyamalan’s botched execution of them made the anguish all the more realized. You walked away from both disasters and openly wondered why Shyamalan was given such large-scale creative freedom and at what point the producers knew they were sunk. With Split, Shyamalan has pared down his story into a very lean and mean survival thriller anchored by a mesmerizing performance from McAvoy. The story engine kicks in very early, mere minutes into the movie. The man doesn’t even wait the usual ten minutes or so before introducing the inciting incident. This Shyamalan has no time to dawdle, and the rest of the movie lives up to this pacing edict. It’s efficiently plotted with the girls in a position of discovery and learning their surroundings, the different alters, and how to play them against one another. Each piece of info builds upon the last. It’s a survival thriller where you think along with the characters, and their decisions make sense within the internal logic and story that Shyamalan commands. There are scattered interruptions from our subterranean terror, mainly exposition from Kevin’s shrink and some hunting flashbacks from Casey’s childhood with her father. I figured they would show Casey to be similar to the feisty heroine from You’re Next, revealing her as a fiendishly clever and capable survivalist that the villain underestimates to his great peril. It’s not quite that but the flashbacks do serve a purpose, a very dark purpose, and a purpose that could lead to some very uncomfortable personal implications others may interpret.
Shyamalan’s ambition has often exceeded his reach when it came to his post-Signs oeuvre. The man never seemed like a great fit for the fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters that Hollywood was hoping he’d sprinkle his “Spielberg scion” magic all over. The number of moving parts seemed to overwhelm and his worst instincts took over. To be fair, Shyalamlan is also to blame as his ego became inflated and he started chasing after his cinematic windmills convinced he was creating great works of art. In Lady in the Water, he inserted himself as the writer that will eventually save all of mankind. That’s a step above arrogant. And he reserved time in that fishy-woman-out-of-water misfire to literally eviscerate a crotchety film critic because the man obviously held no grudges. My point is that when Shyamalan’s stories got too big so did his sense of himself. He lost limitations and people reeling in his excesses and wayward plotting. Even Shyamalan’s early successes are smart examples of how to get the most bang for your buck. Unbreakable is his “comic book movie” and that has like one fight scene. Signs left most to the imagination. Shyamalan has always been a better filmmaker when he holds back and embraces the limitations of his situations, finding more resonant creative solutions. Shyamalan has blossomed under the Blumhouse model, a factory for cheap high-concept thrillers in the $1-10 million range. With that kind of minimal budget, it forces Shyamalan to be very economical with his filmmaking and very meticulous with his storytelling. It worked for The Visit and it especially works with Split. This is a movie that emphasizes its strengths, storytelling and performance, and a large-scale budget is not essential for those elements to flourish. You want to know Shyamalan’s cameo this time? It’s a computer tech literally billed as “Jai, Hooters lover.” We’ve certainly come down from savior of the human race, and it’s a welcomed sign (no pun intended).
The movie would be so much less without the intensely captivating performance from McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse). A character with multiple personalities totaling twenty-three, with twenty-four on its spooky way, must be an actor’s dream. McAvoy loses himself in the sheer playfulness of the part. The characters are distinct down to his poise, posture, the way he carries his body, subtle facial expressions or movements that he’s keyed into specific altered personalities. It’s a lot more than silly voices. It’s a shame that this kind of performance will never really get the recognition it truly deserves. This is an Oscar-worthy performance from McAvoy as he transforms himself again and again. The man finds several different ways to be creepy and menacing, never overdoing the same note. It’s an astonishing chameleon-like performance and definitely deserving of future awards consideration, and we’re in the general cinematic dumping ground of January. I would like to also call attention to Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and her resourceful and thoughtful performance. She’s playing a scared and scarred young woman but a fighter worth rooting for who rises to the many challenges. She’s a Final Girl you can love.
Split is a solid and atmospheric thriller with a killer crazy performance by James McAvoy. The movie flies by, drawing you into its clutches, and the ongoing twists and turns feel organic. There really isn’t so much a twist ending as a culmination of flashback implications. The end has an uncomfortable implication in its resolution, but that’s the worst of it. As long as his head doesn’t get too big, I could welcome Shyamalan cranking out fun mini-budget thrillers in the Blumhouse model. It could be the beginning of a, dare I say, Shyamassaince. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).
Nate’s Grade: B+
For the past ten years, M. Night Shyamalan has been a figure of piñata-whacking derision, and yet the man has consistently been at work on films big and small. You would think a decade of duds would lead to Shyamalan being unable to direct more than a junior high theater production, and yet people like Will Smith were specifically seeking him out to direct inevitably terrible movies like After Earth (oh is that one bad). The association has been burned into our minds: Shyamalan and bad movies. Is it even possible for a man whose name has become a punchline to turn his career around? A low-budget lark like The Visit allows Shyamalan the freedom of risk. If he fails, he’s only made one more bad found footage horror movie in a near infinite sea of them, and the budget number isn’t one that will bankrupt his generous producers. Perhaps it’s through the benefit of low expectations cultivated over ten grievous years of filmmaking, but The Visit is a modest little thriller that has enough suspense and campy humor that it works, mostly. I walked out of the theater generally satisfied and entertained, which are two attributes that haven’t been associated with Shyamalan films since… Signs? Goodness, that was back when Mel Gibson was a box-office titan.
15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are visiting their grandparents for the first time. Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker and brings her camera along to make a movie about the five-day visit. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) live deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania (the local police force consists of one guy). Everything is warm and cozy until it’s nighttime and Pop Pop insists that, for their safety, the kids stay in their rooms after nine o’clock. The strict rules and forbidden areas of the home encourage the kids to go exploring. Their grandparents may just be more than weird and old.
The premise is deceptively simple and yet perfectly relatable and dripping with potential. I heartily enjoyed the fact that for a solid two acts, The Visit is a horror film where the horror elements are old people. Nana and Pop Pop both display fraying mental states, and Nana has an unusual trance-like state that kicks in once the sun goes down. I was expecting something supernatural or vaguely related to fairy tales to emerge to explain the overall weirdness and creepy affectations, but it never does. For most of the movie, the ravages of aging provide the scary business, and I think that’s great. Telling the story from the perspective of Becca and her camera also reinforces the cross-generational peculiarities, where the elderly and their older system of rules and way of life seem even more alien and alarming. Shyamalan, to his credit, does a fine job of coming up with suspense sequences built around his premise. Watching Becca and Tyler debate opening their bedroom door at night, especially after a series of unsettling scratching noises, is a well developed moment that revs up the audience imagination. Of course they shouldn’t open that door but boy do we want them to and discover what is going on. The performances from Dunagan and McRobbie hint at something menacing lurking below the surface but in a casual way. Nana asking Becca to literally crawl inside the oven to clean it is the kind of memorable what-the-hell moment that makes a horror thriller.
The offhand comments from the grandparents and their occasional erratic behavior are also played for laughs thanks to the camp factor of the actors. There is a clear absurdity to the scares and tension, and Shyamalan smartly embraces this. The Visit encourages you to laugh. Apparently, Shyamalan delivered three different edits of the movie: one pure comedy, one pure horror, and one a mixture of the two. The horror/comedy edit was the one released to theaters, and the film is better because of the inclusion of its offbeat humor. Without it, the movie would risk being too serious. To be fair, the movie isn’t making fun of dementia or ridiculing the elderly just because they’re out of touch. When the kids first see signs of Nana and Pop Pop getting confused, they behave very compassionately, like when Pop Pop dresses for a costume party he doesn’t know anything else about. Strangely enough, my theater was mostly populated with people over the age of 50, which made me wonder if they were duped into what kind of movie they were seeing or relished the chance to be seen as the scary boogeyman to teenagers.
Which leads me to the point of the review where I discuss the parts of The Visit that don’t work quite as well. I don’t think Shyamalan knows how to write for teenagers because Becca is far too precocious for her age (using terms like “elixir” and “mise-en-scene” as everyday vocabulary) and Tyler is just downright annoying. There are three separate incidents of Tyler free-style rapping and it’s about as successful as you would expect, though it provides me amusement thinking about Shyamalan writing free-style raps for a thirteen-year-old white kid from the suburbs. My engagement with The Visit was more tethered to a general sense of morbid curiosity than a concern for the teen characters. I would have been perfectly fine if the teens didn’t make it out alive. I knew that was never going to happen because of the PG-13 rating, which does put some limitations on just how far out there Shyamalan can go. Though it doesn’t limit a scant shot of elderly nudity used for comic purposes. There is a great reveal that leads into the third act that ups the stakes, but it also shifts the movie into a more definitive slasher territory, and a PG-13 rating is going to further limit that territory. There are plot holes (a disabled laptop Webcam; the fact that they don’t have cell phone service but can Skype with their mom) and several mysteries are short-lived and anticlimactic (What’s in the shed? Oh, it’s just soiled adult diapers – incontinence!). Like many found footage movies, the movie fails to justify or incorporate this forced narrative device. Becca is a teen with two cameras and yet she stages them so counter-intuitively. For her first meeting with her grandparents, she sets down the camera and then runs into the distance to hug them. Would it not make more sense to get a closer shot of this first meeting? The found footage structure also provides a coda that frustratingly undercuts the climax of tension and replaces it with a sentimental monologue. It makes sense as a movie-within-a-movie but it’s a poor choice to end a horror/comedy that just hit its peak with an unnecessary and tonally-unwarranted resolution meant to warm the heart.
Shyamalan has a long road ahead to atone for his cinematic sins, and while I wouldn’t call The Visit an outright success, the movie succeeds more often than it fails. I think more could have been done to subvert and push the premise further, but the limitations of the rating and the found footage structure keep the movie from getting too crazy. There are some well-drawn suspense sequences and the use of campy humor is a strong asset that allows the shortcomings to be more forgivable. It’s the best Shyamalan movie in over a decade, which is really saying everything you need to know. Who knows? Maybe the comeback starts here with a tiny horror movie with rapping kids and dirty Depends. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Rare is the movie that just seems to fail at every level of filmmaking, from writing to direction to pacing to casting to production design to logic to, well, you name it (perhaps the craft services were the exception to the rule). Director M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth is one of those exceptional, big-budget passion project failures that just mystify on every account, making you scratch your head and wonder who could possibly be passionate about something this utterly terrible? I’m reminded of John Travolta’s 2000 sci-fi Scientology-ode, Battlefield Earth, for a comparison that comes close to approaching After Earth’s star-powered ineptitude (this movie also has plenty of vague Scientology references as well). While I doubt this will kill anyone’s careers associated, though it probably eliminates some good will for the Smith clan, it definitely piles more dirt on the grave that was Shyamalan’s film career. Enough preface, let’s get into the meat of why After Earth is one of the worst sci-fi films in years.
In a sloppy bit of exposition, we’re told that humans left planet Earth after we made it too unsustainable. The human race then colonized an alien world except that the indigenous aliens weren’t too happy about this. The aliens made a space monster, known as an Ursa, which would track and kill human beings by sniffing out their fear pheromones. Cypher Raige (Will Smith) rises in the ranks of the Ranger corps because he has the unique ability to “ghost.” Because the man does not register fear he is able to sneak around the Ursa as if invisible. His relationship with his teenage son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), is strained at best. Dad has been gone a long time and has high standards for his boy; the kid has to refer to him as “sir” even at the dinner table. Father and son are traveling through space when their ship crash-lands on good old Earth. Cypher’s legs are broken and he entrusts his son to make the trek to send out the distress call. The dangers of Earth, we’re told, have only magnified since humans left, and the Ursa onboard their ship has escaped.
Oh boy, where to even start with this one?
I’ve got a great idea, let’s take one of the world’s most charismatic actors and then turn him into a stone-faced hardass, terse with words of encouragement, and mostly sidelined so that his son can go on his stupid hero’s journey. I suppose Smith deserves some credit for stepping outside his comfort zone to play against type, but that praise only matters when the portrayal works. Smith is arguably miscast in his own passion project. That’s because this was really a $130 million dollar birthday present to his son, trying to use dad’s star power to establish Jaden as a star. It’s less a movie and more like a product launch. On its face, I don’t really have an issue with this. Nepotism has been alive and well in Hollywood for over 100 years and those in power have been producing vanity vehicles for their beloved for even longer. What I chafe at is that the finished product is so lacking and unconvincing. Jaden was cute in 2010’s The Karate Kid remake, a movie that was far better than it ever should have been. Unfortunately, After Earth came at that special time in his life known as puberty, so he gets his lanky, squeaky-voiced, awkward growth stage forever captured on film. Thus when he gets into a huff, squeals at his dad, and then become the world’s most improbable super warrior by film’s end, it mostly brings about snickers. You don’t buy a second of this character’s ascent to hero.
Let’s tackle the ultimate elephant in the room here, namely the involvement of Shyamalan. This is his first project he didn’t conceive; Smith himself came up with the story and personally hired Shyamalan. Who deserves more of the blame? There’s a reason why the marketing for After Earth has not breathed a word about Shyamalan’s involvement. In my theater, when the end credits appeared and it opened with Shyamalan’s director credit, the guy behind me remarked, “Well, that figures.” His sense of dissatisfaction now had a tangible culprit. It’s almost become a joke how much of a critical punching bag Shyamalan has become as a filmmaker. The man has genuine talent but it’s five duds in a row (I am counting The Village) and not even the world’s most bankable star could have saved this movie. As anyone who witnessed the atrocious Last Airbender can attest, Shyamalan is not a filmmaker who works well with a big special effects canvas. I’d suggest that Shyamalan, besides taking some time off, which may be a self-prescribed death sentence in Hollywood, find a smaller project to foster, perhaps something more personal and intimate. Nobody except the sadistic enjoys watching once-promising talents keep hitting a brick wall. Then again, people also dislike having to pay for terrible movies, especially when the director of said terrible movies keeps getting the opportunity to deliver more disappointment.
The plot, which Shyamalan is credited as a co-writer for, is so dull that I found myself almost falling asleep. You would think father and son surviving crash on a hostile alien world would be packed with survival thrills and excitement. You’d be wrong. It’s as if Shyamalan takes a page from Smith’s ranger character, and just goes about its business in the most thankless, ho-hum, undeterred manner. When we have characters that don’t react to the danger they’re in it has the misfortune of feeling less real, less urgent, and less dangerous. This was a problem with The Matrix films when Neo became a super being because then the stakes evaporated. It’s hard to sympathize with characters that don’t reflect the reality of their setting. With that said, so much of this script is just Kitai running off and running into different animals. He meets baboons. He meets a tiger. He meets an eagle. He meets a slug. Scintillating stuff. Such ambition. If this is what the execution was going to be like, why didn’t Smith and Shyamalan just make the planet an actual alien world? It would certainly open up the storytelling options. Or they could have gone in the opposite direction, setting this survival tale on a modern Earth. That would probably have made it much more relatable and resonant and also far cheaper.
The character back-story is also woefully familiar and just as ineffective. Before it even happened, I knew that there would have to be some tragic personal history so that Kitai could overcome his past. We’re given some cringe-worthy moments of flashbacks to the family’s happier times, when Kitai’s older sister Senshi (Zoe Kravitz) was still alive. It’s a plodding and contrived plot device for the father to preposterously blame his son for, who was like seven years old at the time. I kid you not, during one of these oh-so-necessary flashbacks, Senshi tells dad she got a copy of Moby Dick and a boy let her hold it. Dad doesn’t get it, though I don’t know if this is meant to be some lame sex joke. This back-story is ladled in with no real logical connection to events. All of a sudden, Cypher will be thinking about his broken leg and then, whoosh, we’re thinking about Moby Dick.
There’s also the issue of its tenuous grasp on reality. I know this quality is a give-and-take depending upon the tone of the sci-fi film, but After Earth is so drearily self-serious that it becomes even more unbearable when it so clearly conflicts with credulity. This movie’s big message that it pounds into your head repeatedly is that fear is a choice, fear is not real, and that fear is a hindrance for mankind’s progress. This is nonsense. Fear is what kept our ancestors alive rather than trying to play with larger predators. Fearlessness is a great way for your species to end. You know an animal without fear? Lemmings. The fact that the movie has to literalize this conflict in the form of a fear-smelling alien monster is just beyond absurd. Let’s keep this literalizing-of-theme going; maybe next the aliens will fashion a monster that smells intolerance or illiteracy. Why are these aliens even genetically creating a monster to do their dirty work? If they have the superior scientific prowess to create a gnarly beast, I’m pretty sure they can take care of mankind. On top of this assertion, why would you make a beast that is effectively blind and only reliant upon one sense and then you limit that one sense to “fear”? Why not just have the alien monster smell human beings? That seems to make a lot more sense.
What also buggers my mind is the fact that, according to After Earth, everything on the planet has evolved to kill humans. First, I don’t think substantial leaps in evolution work in meager thousand-year spans; secondly, these evolved creatures are really just slightly larger versions of familiar animals, which doesn’t really make much sense either; and lastly, if humans have been off planet for a thousand years, how did these animals evolve to kill something they no longer have any interaction with? Then there’s the fact that the Earth drops rapidly into freezing temperatures overnight, for no good reason. How do all those plants survive? As an extension, Kitai’s super suit is just a prime example of a poorly developed idea that just as easily could have been abandoned. He has a special leotard that changes to his environment. We’ll watch it change colors though we’re never given any worthwhile reason why this is happening. However, Kitai’s suit will not shield him from Earth’s sudden temperature drops. So he’s wearing this super suit that adjusts to his environment… except temperature? If you’re going to present something all super scientific and then give it such obvious limitations, then you never should have introduced it in the first place. This is an ongoing theme with the film.
Then there are just nit-picky things like my total distaste for the production design of this movie. The spaceships look so chintzy. They have plastic flaps separating sections, like what you’d see in an office building when there’s construction. The spaceship interiors, as well as home interiors, also look like some bizarre mix of honeycomb and bamboo. I’m all for thinking outside the box when it comes to futuristic design, but this is just stupid. One of the great possibilities of sci-fi is to capture our imagination with out-of-this-world visuals, the unfamiliar, the spectacle of the alien. If your spectacle is good enough, it can even save a so-so movie, like last year’s Prometheus. Being stuck on Earth, only slightly different, emphasis on slightly, fails to deliver anything visually that will captivate an audience too often settling into boredom. Apparently After Earth looks pretty much like Earth except for Mount Doom popping up. The special effects are also lackluster and the score by James Newton Howard will try and trick you at every turn into thinking what’s happening onscreen is a lot more interesting than it is.
If you value your entertainment, please ignore After Earth. It doesn’t even work from a derisive enjoyment angle. The movie is lethargic and unimaginative to its core. It’s predictable at every turn and underwhelming throughout. The plot consists of the most boring father-son team in recent memory and a hero’s journey that feels false at every step. This big-budget star vehicle doesn’t work when its star doesn’t have the intangibles to be a star, nor does it help when the story is so poorly developed. The science feels boneheaded, the characters are dreary, the pacing sluggish, the spectacle clipped, and the world building to be bland. The shame is that this premise, even this exact same premise on a future Earth, could have easily worked as a suspense thriller. Smith seemed more interested in building an After Earth enterprise, since companion books were commissioned, and extending the reach of the Smith family empire. Making a good movie, it seems, was secondary. Being fearless also has its disadvantages.
Nate’s Grade: D
2010 has been a banner year for Trapped to Stuff Cinema. People have been trapped on a ski lift (Frozen), under a rock (127 Hours), in a coffin (Buried), and now with Devil… an elevator. The story comes from “the mind of M. Night Shyamalan,” not exactly a selling point at this juncture in time: five strangers are trapped in an elevator and one of them happens to be the titular devil. Now, that may sound like a waste of the Devil’s abilities; surely the Lord of Evil has better things to do than mess around with people in an elevator. Regardless, this low-rent thriller nearly overdoses on terrifically noisy jump scares as its primary source of spooks. As the candidates get picked off one by one when the lights go down, the guessing game becomes more tiresome. Even at a sparse 75 minutes the entire film feels exhausted. The characters are dumb. The Hispanic security guard tries to convince others that the devil’s responsible for the shenanigans. His method of argument: tossing a piece of toast in the air and saying because it landed jelly-side down, the devil is in play. Because when Old Scratch’s around, only bad things happen (protect your toast). The ending feels both contrived and tonally inappropriate, like putting a smiley face sticker on a school report on Ted Bundy. This is an entire movie that lands jelly-side down.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Let The Last Airbender be a shining example of how NOT to adapt a children’s fantasy series into a standalone 90-minute movie. M. Night Shyamalan was hired to write and direct the popular Nickelodeon cartoon into a major movie with a major budget. It’s astounding how poorly made on every front this movie is. Seriously, people should be taking notes because Shyamalan has given a blueprint of blunders to avoid. The first blunder, and perhaps the source of all the others: hiring Shyamalan to begin with.
The film takes place in a fantasy realm where human beings are divided into four different nations based on the natural elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. Each nation has a special select group of people that can control that element. These people are known as benders. The one figure who can control all four elements is referred to as the Avatar, and this figure is reincarnated into a different nation each generation. In the absence of the last Avatar, the fie nation has invaded the other nations. Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) has dishonored his father, leader of the fire nation, and been banished. He seeks redemption by attacking the water nation, where siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) live. They discover hidden among the ice a small bald child named Aang (Noah Ringer). This kid is the last of the airbenders and is believed to be the last reincarnation of the Avatar. For obvious reasons, Prince Zuko is after the Avatar to regain his father’s acceptance.
At one point christened with the moniker of “the next Spielberg,” the writer/director has been slipping and sliding down into the pits of his self-deluded grandeur and stubbornness. After Lady in the Water and The Happening, who in their right minds would give this guy $150 million to direct a special effects-driven summer action movie AND let him adapt the show too? Even if you somehow managed to convince yourself that Shyamalan sitting in the director’s chair was a feasible solution, why on Earth would you let this man near the screenplay? I must repeat: did people see Lady in the Water and The Happening (this is a rhetorical question, because nobody wants to remember seeing them)? The Airbender series is a very well regarded television show that has appealed to audiences of all ages, including those old enough to buy their own beer, thank you very much. What purpose does it serve to ditch the show’s creators and longtime show runners in place of giving the responsibilities for coming up with plot, characterization, and God help us, dialogue, to the man that last gave the world The Happening? The Happening, people! What did you think was going to happen? Even with the lowest of expectations, The Last Airbender will still confound with its dead-on-arrival acting, zero character development, and overly serious spiritual mumbo jumbo. Who at the studio read Shyamaln’s adaptation and thought it was ready to move forward?
The Last Airbender begins with an opening scrawl informing the audience of the four different nations and the significance of the Avatar. Then it sprints forward without ever establishing context. Spending time to explain the rule and makeup of a new world is essential to the fantasy genre; we need to be able to know the rules of this universe and the dramatic stakes. Shyamalan establishes his villains via a lame text crawl. How hard would it have been to open the movie by showcasing the Fire Nation being big and bad? Most films open by establishing the bad guys in true villainous form. This movie would have started out so much better by establishing the villains, their mission, why they’re so bad, and introducing the general audience to the family of bad guys. That way our first introduction to them isn’t so perfunctory. In the film as it is, Shyamalan just sort of slides his characters into the plot in the most bumbling, awkward fashion. We don’t even learn about Prince Zuko’s banishment firsthand. In grand Shyamalan style, characters explain to the audience at every opportunity. Because why would you rather watch Zuko try to impress his father, fail and become scared, and have his father banish him from his nationality, promising to return and win back his father’s approval… when you could just listen to a character recite what took place? Isn’t that way better than watching something in a visual medium? There are a terrible amount of moments that feel clumsily strung together, like several important scenes were taken out at the last minute.
This is emblematic of the entire movie because unless you’re well versed in the Airbender story, you will be as clueless as I was. I had no idea what was going on for most of the movie. Suddenly characters appear. Suddenly they can do some magical ability. Suddenly they can’t. Suddenly they’re gone. Suddenly we’re somewhere new. Suddenly this character’s dead/ Suddenly the Earthbenders are all kept together in a prison that lies atop plenty of bendable earth. Where’s the correctional planning on that one? I couldn’t explain why anything was all of a sudden happening, or what the exact rules were that helped or hindered characters, and I was left grasping for any sort of workable motivation among all the ridiculous and reflexive New Age spiritualism. Shyamalan and the film’s producers do not set up a damn thing. The film operates on a false assumption that the audience is already familiar with the source material, so it never stoops to setup plot or explain characters and events. That would be a waste of time when they have more substandard water effects to show. Because why would you want to spend $150 million on a movie that appeals to people outside a narrow margin of fans? And when you try and try and cannot understand what’s happening on screen, it’s only natural to lose interest. When the film is as dopey as The Last Airbender it only speeds up the process. I was deeply apathetic all the way through this ungainly mess.
I don’t think there’s anything that irritates me more in a fantasy film than when characters treat everything with such general indifference: “Ho hum, we just found a bald kid and his flying buffalo in a block of ice. Ho hum, he can master all the elements. Whatever. What’s on TV?” If the characters can’t be bothered to care then why should I?
I don’t know what this movie spent on special effects but whatever it was it clearly wasn’t enough. Last Airbender has some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen in a major Hollywood summer release. Did the ILM gurus pass along their effects work to their interns? The green screen work, featured early with Katara and Sokka in some Icelandic realm, is ridiculously shoddy. People look like they have halos as they stand out against the all-too fake backdrops. The special effects in general are missing a polish and resonance that helps to disguise the illusion. I have to admit that it gets pretty boring watching one character hurl blue water orbs while another hurls red fire orbs. You would hope that a movie where people can control natural elements for combat they could do something more imaginative than fling different colored blobby orbs at each other. You have the power to control fire, the power to command the oceans or the wind, why must you low-ball it? I saw infinitely better choreographed elemental fighting on old episodes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
Once again Shyamalan completely betrays the trust of his actors (don’t think Zooey Deschanel can give an awful performance? See The Happening). He gets lost in the whirlwind of special effects and fantasy worlds, so his actors get short shrift when it comes to direction. Ringer look the part and can perform the tricky martial arts moves with ease, but is that the best reason to hire an actor? Can’t makeup take care of perfecting a look? Can’t a stunt double fill in for the more challenging physical stunts? I’d rather have somebody who can act rather than just look like the human form of an animated character. Ringer is an annoying messianic figure to have at the center of your franchise. His counterparts don’t fare much better. Peltz (Deck the Halls) is impassive and routinely hits the wrong note for a scene, and Rathbone (Eclipse, New Moon) is fairly wooden and plays too many scenes like he was given one note (“bigger eyes”). Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) gets to glower and his voice kicks up in volume at weird intervals. It’s another example of unmoored actors struggling for direction. But the worst offender in the film is Aasif Mandvi, though through no real fault of his own. He is dreadfully miscast as the movie’s chief villain, and wickedness is not in Mandvi’s repertoire. He’s a cutup on TV’s The Daily Show but here Mandvi couldn’t seriously menace anyone. His tone, demeanor, and even very look lack intimidation. He has a glint of mischief that you can’t take seriously. I’m usually not one to point and shout “racism,” but the fact that Shyamlan and the producers have whitewashed the film’s casting is troublesome. Caucasian actors have filled in for the series’ predominantly Asian characters, and all the villains happen to be transformed into dark-skinned figures played by Indian actors.
I can’t explain most of M. Night Shyamalan’s thinking when it comes to the finished product. The Last Airbender seems intended solely for fans given how forgetful it is when it comes to plot setup and explanations and back-stories. Why should an audience be able to follow along? Comprehension is overrated (David Lynch being a lone exception). At the same time, Shyamalan gives nothing back to those fans who have looked forward to a big-budget realization of the popular TV fantasy series. Shyamalan even seems downright disdainful, again falling victim to his own ever-swelling hubris. Why shouldn’t he write the script? Why would the creators have any clue about how to condense their mythological dense show into a satisfying two-hour taste? If you’ve never watched the TV show, you’ll leave the theater wondering why the hell anybody would give a crap about all this junk. The movie presumptuously sets itself up for a series of sequels that I doubt we’ll ever see, certainly not with Shyamalan’s involvement at the least. Shyamlan once again defies his critics and lives on to make yet another artistic disaster. If three straight duds couldn’t detract somebody from throwing $150 million and artistic license his way, then I don’t know if this man and his ego will ever be humbled or tamed.
Nate’s Grade: D
M. Night Shyamalan is still reeling from the beating he took over 2006’s Lady in the Water, a colossal misguided attempt at a modern fairy tale. The man is trying to retain his cozy relationship with audiences that adored his earlier works like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Shyamaln’s latest, The Happening, isn’t going to dissuade the detractors. This man is a talented filmmaker and I think it’s finally time that he starts thinking of focusing on one creative job and one job only, either writing or directing.
There’s a pandemic sweeping across the Northeast United States. It first starts with disoriented speech, then moves to disoriented movement, and ends with people committing suicide. Nobody knows what is officially going on. High school science teacher Eliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) tries to flee Philadelphia with his estranged wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel). They travel out into the suburbs when their train stops. The conductor says that they’ve lost contact with everybody. Eliot eventually theorizes that what’s causing this pandemic isn’t terrorists, or the government testing some biological agent, but plants. Yes, plants. In their defense, the plants are releasing an airborne toxin that flips a neurological switch in human brains. Instead of self-preservation the brain is pushed toward immediate self-destruction.
The Happening is no Lady in the Water, thankfully. The premise is pretty interesting in a feature-length Twilight Zone kind of way. Shyamalan does know how to spin an interesting idea and watch social paranoia explode. The best moments of The Happening take place during its beginning where confusion and panic reign. Shyamalan then takes a page from 2005’s War of the Worlds and follows the perspective of a handful of normal folk as the experience an apocalyptic event. We even spend the third act hiding out in the home of a crazy person (the creepy Betty Buckley). Unfortunately, we in the audience feel no involvement with the poorly written main characters. Once again Shyamalan utilizes a horrific and unique encounter as the impetus for reconciling the pains in a marriage. At a scant 99 minutes, there isn’t much time set aside for building characterization. There is not a whiff of personal connection to this tale.
Shyamalan doesn’t seem to explore the psychological ramifications of his premise. Suicide is very traumatizing and it would have swept over the East Coast in waves; millions would be dead. Yet the characters and Shyamalan never seem to focus on this point. Perhaps they’re in shock but no one seems to actually react realistically to the possible end of the world. Normal people would be freaking out. I would be freaking out. The idea that the country goes back to normal after three months is preposterous. Would anyone want to live on the East Coast again after all that death? People would be finding bodies for many months after the “happening;” just look at the slow recovery of New Orleans. Never mind the hit the economy would take from millions of people expiring.
The ecological message can also be incessantly heavy-handed. Characters run past a sign for a housing development that advertises the slogan, “You deserve this.” Oh, gee, I get it. A TV host at the very end interviews a scientist theorizing that what happened was a warning from the environment to shape up and change our ways. The TV host is so incredulous that he actually says, “Well, I’d like to believe you doc, but maybe if it just happened somewhere else again, maybe then I could believe you.” You idiot, millions of people died and there are how many witnesses? I know exactly what message Shyamalan is trying to say (wake up, we can’t ignore the signs) but having a character denying the obvious is too ludicrous given what happens in the story.
But the story does invite further inquiries. How exactly do the plants communicate with each other? I can understand root structures but how does a bush talk to a tree unless they share root structures? Do plants speak different languages? Can a bush talk with a tree, and do French bushes speak differently than their English brethren? The plants seem to react to large numbers of people, but how do they know when there’s say enough folk running around to kill? Do they smell people? That toxin seems to not affect animals but I don’t see how that could be possible given that, as far as I know, animals inhale the air as well. Of course, if all surrounding animals and insects were to keel over then that would irrevocably harm the ecosystem and endanger the plants. This must be why the “happening” lasts a little over a day, coincidentally ending just when our protagonists are about to give up. And if Mother Nature, as a form of population control, triggers this toxin release then wouldn’t it stand to reason that some place like China or India would be hit first instead of the Northeast United States? Shouldn’t a science teacher know that still air would be filled with more toxins than when the wind blows? I’ll give Shyamalan this — he was able to make me fear a tree. There was one moment where a little girl was on a swing that was bolted into a tree limb and the constant creaking made me nervous that they would anger the tree.
Despite the flaws in storytelling, this narrative still could have worked as is if it just had a better director at the helm. Shyamalan lets everyone down on this one. Much of the marketing angle was how The Happening is Shyamalan’s first foray into R-rated material, but you can tell he doesn’t feel comfortable showing more than implying. One sequence follows a police officer’s gun as different individuals take turns shooting themselves in the head. Shyamalan shoots this sequence like the camera weighed 800 pounds, so the shot never rises above people’s feet. We see the gun fall on the ground, feet walk over to the gun, hands pick it up and lift it off screen, then a very unconvincing gunshot sound effect, then the process repeats. By not actually seeing the deadly aftermath Shyamalan risks the sequence becoming unintentionally funny and it almost happens. This directorial technique does not raise suspense, and in fact, Shyamalan botches most of the potential suspense in The Happening. Given the premise, Shyamalan doesn’t find too many sequences that make the audience squirm. A man wandering around in a lion’s cage is so fake and played in the wrong tone that it just becomes goofy even when his arms get ripped off. There’s only one protracted horror sequence that shows true gore, where a man lies down in the path of a giant lawnmower and we start to see the machine ride over him and whirl its blades. However, even this scene could have gone longer to fully draw out the shock and terror. Shyamalan just doesn’t have the temerity for R-rated material, and as a result the movie could have been a lot more terrifying had the man embraced the gruesome potential of a more mature rating.
Shyamalan’s visual storytelling is pretty rote. I kept thinking to myself how poor everything seemed to be looking. The cinematography is lackluster and the shot compositions are rather bland. Part of what makes a horror movie effective is clever visual setups that slowly leak tension like air from a balloon. Shyamalan’s idea of drawing out tension is to watch tress blow in the wind. After a while, when you realize this is the one trick Shyamalan has, it gets old and extremely boring. The Happening would have benefited from a stronger visual storyteller who could also goose the narrative with better-constructed scares. It’s disappointing because Shyamalan was able to elicit top-notch suspense in 2002’s Signs with simple sounds and the imagination. Now, when he’s given the chance to show terror he falls on his face.
Another dent to Shyamalan’s direction is the fact that the actors all give bad performances. Wahlberg and Deschanel have given great performances in other movies so I know they are capable of more, and the blame must lie at the feet of Shyamalan. They overact with gusto and always seem to never be fully immersed in the reality of the drama. Even Wahlberg’s first line delivery raises your eyebrow because it seems too amateurish and flat. Deschanel is even worse and whatever emotion she is playing in a scene is the wrong emotion. She’s whiny and overly childlike when she should be reflective and contemplative, she’s wide-eyed and weepy when she should be tender, and she’s bad with just about every line. Alma is a weak character and seems to turn everything back to an injustice against her, even when people are killing themselves en mass. Part of the actors’ woes is complicated by Shyamalan’s wooden dialogue, which includes gems like, “We’ve just got to stay ahead of the wind” (how exactly does one do that?) and, “We’re not going to stand around like uninvolved bystanders” (who says that?). The most shocking aspect of The Happening is that Shyamalan totally betrays the trust of his very competent actors.
M. Night Shyamalan would be best served in the future by focusing on one role. He could direct someone else’s material or he could write and have someone else direct. If he had gone the latter route I’m convinced that The Happening would have worked even with a flawed script. The movie is too timid to push the horror boundaries available to a mature rating, the suspense is minute, and Shyamalan completely leaves his actors hanging out to dry. There is some laugh out loud moments of unintentional hilarity (like when Wahlberg calmly says “Oh no” upon hearing suicidal gunshots), but the movie also has moments of intrigue amidst its heavy-handed environmental message. Statistically, if there were a killer toxin there would be those who would be genetically immune to it, much like the scenario in I Am Legend. I have to say that if I was fortunate enough to survive I would whisper some threatening words to some choice flora and then I would set lots and lots of fires out of revenge. Take that, you stinking vegetation!
Nate’s Grade: C
Writer/director/twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan must have been smarting from the cool reception to his last high-concept thriller, 2004’s The Village. Shyamalan has built a reputation for smart, eerie, complex movies, as well as forced twists and endings that leave the films in shambles. He went back to basics. Lady in Water started as an ongoing story he told his kids at bedtime. His kids participated in the creation of the story. If we didn’t learn from last year’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, movies where children helped shape the story should be left as bedtime stories. Lady in Water is further proof of this.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the fix-it man at an apartment complex. Someone?s been swimming in the pool late at night and clogging up the filter. The unexpected culprit is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a waif of a girl. She says she is a “narf,” a sea nymph who’s crossed from her world, the Blue World, to ours. Her purpose is to plant the seed of change by finding a special individual. When her mission is complete a giant eagle will carry her back to her world. Cleveland accepts being her guardian and protector and assists her on her quest. He mingles with the apartment complex’s eclectic residents, trying to figure out who fits what role to help Story. There is one hairy problem. A scrunt, a wolf-like beast with twigs and long grass for fur, is after Story. An evil monkey creature is overseeing the whole weird affair.
Early on, Lady in Water was advertised as “a bedtime story by M. Night Shyamalan,” and just like your typical bedtime story, the thing feels entirely made up on the spot. The story sounds like a little kid making up a book report: “There’s this grass wolf, see, and it’s after this sea lady, and there’s these evil monkeys that oversee everything, and an eagle carries her away when she’s done, but she’s like the unknown Queen of the sea ladies, and she has helpers but can’t say who they are, and they all have special abilities, except some of them can only do stuff, and no one can see her leave.” What? Was Dio an unaccredited co-writer for this? Lady in Water feels like Shyamalan is haphazardly throwing spontaneous obstacles and rules into his story, hoping something sticks when it just muddies up the story.
Naturally, there are many unanswered questions brought about by the supernatural subject matter. Why is it an eagle that plucks Story away to safety when she?s fulfilled her mission? Wasn’t part of the schism between man and the Blue World because man moved to land? Wouldn’t something aquatic make more sense to rescue her? What about the entirely unnecessary evil monkey judge? Why is it even there? Why does it just sit there idly if the scrunt breaks the rules (and if the scrunt is a rule-breaker then why not just bust inside Cleveland’s home and eat the chick)? For that matter, if the monkey judge is so evil then why does it even respect the rules? Why don?t the evil monkey judges side with the already evil scrunts? Why do the scrunts hate the narfs so? Who established these systems of rules for narf contact and scrunt hunting? Do the monkey judges allow the narfs to get killed as long as it’s during the right time? Is it like a boxing match (“Touch gloves, to your corners, and no biting after the bell”)? And of course everyone believes this tripe. Shyamalan could fall back on the excuse that his tale is a bedtime story and not meant for extensive examination. Sure, not everything needs to be explained but that doesn’t mean Shyamalan can get away with being lazy.
There’s no finesse in the writing. Shyamalan seems to have taken his frustration with the dwindling critical reception of his works hard. The movie critic character, Mr. Farber (a droll Bob Balaban) is one of two items, either the embodiment of his ire, a figure out of touch with human emotion and the public’s trust, or Shyamalan making a preemptive strike. The critic complains there are no more original stories left in Hollywood; well, Mr. Smarty Pants, what do you think of a tale of narfs and scrunts? The problem is that the film critic is not unlikable, just cynical, and despite how dismissive Shyamalan may wish to be, the critic’s complaints and observations about the film industry are solid. In Lady in Water, characters do speak their feelings so casually. People explain back-stories and motivations like it was written on foreheads. The critic character is so inconsequential as well, so the notion that Shyamalan spends so much energy on him makes it feel like a score being settled.
What?s more irritating is how self-involved the movie comes across. The whole purpose of Story’s venture to our world is to inspire a gifted writer, a writer whose work will be seen as unchecked genius that will cause great change throughout the world. Nations will renounce war, men and women will greet each other as brother and sister, and the world will be a profoundly better place to live, all thanks to one artistic genius that changed the world. And who plays this artistic genius lying in wait? M. Night Shyamalan. In conjunction with the critic character, perhaps Shyamalan is proclaiming that his movies will stand the test of time, despite what those fuddy-duddies at their typewriters say. Lady in Water is either an intense example of artistic insecurity or an unflappable, monstrous ego.
Shyamalan is too gifted a filmmaker to make outright bad movies. However, he is prone to making very misguided choices. The addition of the monkey judge just mucks things up and more unanswerable questions. Are the monkeys like the regional overseer? Is there a tri-state office run by a giraffe with twigs on its head? Shyamalan’s plot is too formless and relies on some garish ethnic stereotypes, like the nattering Jewess and the screechy, rail-thin Korean teen. His sense of direction takes a back seat to his writing. Many moments are filmed out of focus, or the camera bounces around trying to capture whoever?s talking, always seemingly just out of reach. His visual aesthetic feels noticeably simpler. There’s a certain unapologetic yearning in Lady in Water to be a Steven Spielberg film, from the John Williams-like score, to the assembly of characters wanting to believe again, to the heaping helping of schmaltz. Lady in Water is proficiently crafted (special thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the movie is an unmistakable artistic misfire.
Giamatti is a dependable sad sack, and he deploys an array of stutters and tics to convey how damaged Cleveland Heep is. He’s good but then he always is, no matter how stupendously awful his material may be (he did survive Big Momma’s House). Howard is one of the more beguiling and intriguing young actors in the movies right now. She bewitched me in The Village, but in Lady in Water she befuddled me. It’s hard acting as a made-up creature. Howard relies on lots of vacant, supposedly, ethereal staring. She comes across as less supernatural and more like a club kid on ecstasy.
Lady in Water is not an unmitigated disaster but it’s definitely not good by any stretch of the imagination. M. Night Shyamalan seems to fray with every new movie, and Lady in Water is by far the man?s most ridiculous and self-involved flick. He’s too great of a talent to write off, even during his misfires, but we can’t be expected to iron out his narrative kinks every time. Shyamalan’s films generally center on broken people looking for their place in the universe and finding a grander plan for their pain. Hopefully, after the birth pain of Lady in Water, Shyamalan can find his place in the artistic landscape and spare us more half-baked bedtime stories.
Nate’s Grade: C-
When saying director names you can play a fun little game of word association. Someone says, “George Lucas,” and things like big-budget effects, empty storytelling, and wooden dialogue come to mind. Someone says, “David Lynch,” and weird, abstract, therapy sessions dance in your head. The behemoth of word association is M. Night Shyamalan. He burst onto the scene with 1999’s blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, a crafty, moody, intelligent thriller with a knock-out final twist. Now, though, it seems more and more evident that while The Sixth Sense was the making of M. Night Shyamalan, it also appears to be his undoing. His follow-up films, Unbreakable and Signs, have suffered by comparison, but what seems to be hampering Shyamalan’s growth as a writer is the tightening noose of audience expectation that he kowtows to.
With this in mind, we have Shyamalan’s newest cinematic offering, The Village. Set in 1897, we follow the simple, agrarian lives of the people that inhabit a small secluded hamlet. The town is isolated because of a surrounding dense forest. Mythical creatures referred to as Those We Dont Speak Of populate the woods. An uneasy truce has been agreed upon between the creatures and the villagers, as long as neither camp ventures over into the others territory. When someone does enter the woods, foreboding signs arise. Animals are found skinned, red marks are found on doors, and people worry that the truce may be over. Within this setting, we follow the ordinary lives of the townsfolk. Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the daughter of the towns self-appointed mayor (William Hurt), and doesnt let a little thing like being blind get in the way of her happiness. She is smitten with Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), a soft-spoken loner. Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man, also has feelings for Ivy, which cause greater conflict.
Arguably, the best thing about The Village is the discovery of Howard. She proves herself to be an acting revelation that will have future success long after The Village is forgotten. Her winsome presence, wide radiant smile, and uncanny ability to quickly emote endear the character of Ivy to the audience. She is the only one onscreen with genuine personality and charisma, and when shes flirting and being cute about it you cannot help but fall in love with her. And when she is being torn up inside, the audience feels the same emotional turmoil. I am convinced that this is more so from Howard’s acting than from the writing of Shyamalan. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett, both in features and talent.
It seems to me that Shyamalan’s directing is getting better with every movie while his writing is getting proportionately worse. He has a masterful sense of pacing and mood, creating long takes that give the viewer a sense of unease. The first arrival of the creatures is an expertly handled scene that delivers plenty of suspense, and a slow-motion capper, with music swelling, that caused me to pump my fist. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is beautifully elegant. Even the violin-heavy score by James Newton Howard is a great asset to the film’s disposition.
So where does the film go wrong and the entertainment get sucked out?
What kills The Village is its incongruous ending. Beforehand, Shyamalan has built a somewhat unsettling tale, but when he finally lays out all his cards, the whole is most certainly not more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ending is so illogical and stupid, and raises infinitely more questions than feeble answers, that it undermines the rest of the film. Unlike The Sixth Sense, the twist of The Village does not get better with increased thought.
Shyamalan’s sense of timing with his story revelations is maddening. He drops one twist with 30 minutes left in the film, but whats even more frustrating is he situates a character into supposed danger that the audience knows doesn’t exist anymore with this new knowledge. The audience has already been told the truth, and it deflates nearly all the tension. Its as if Shyamalan reveals a twist and then tells the audience to immediately forget about it. Only the naïve will fall for it.
Shyamalan also exhibits a problem fully rendering his characters. They are so understated that they dont ever really jump from the screen. The dialogue is very stilted and flat, as Shyamalan tries to stubbornly fit his message to ye olde English vernacular (which brings about a whole other question when the film’s final shoe is dropped). Shyamalan also seems to strand his characters into soap opera-ish subplots involving forbidden or unrequited love. For a good hour or so, minus one sequence, The Village is really a Jane Austin story with the occasional monster.
The rest of the villagers don’t come away looking as good as Howard. Phoenix’s taciturn delivery seems to suit the brooding Lucius, but at other times he can give the impression of dead space. Hurt is a sturdy actor but can’t find a good balance between his solemn village leader and caring if sneaky father. Sigourney Weaver just seems adrift like shes looking for butter to churn. Brody is given the worst to work with. His mentally-challenged character is a terrible one-note plot device. He seems to inexplicably become clever when its needed.
The Village is a vast disappointment when the weight of the talent involved is accounted for. Shyamalan crafts an interesting premise, a portent sense of dread, and about two thirds of a decent-to-good movie, but as Brian Cox said in Adaptation, ”The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws and problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” It’s not that the final twists and revelations are bad; its that they paint everything that came before them in a worse light. An audience going into The Village wanting to be scared will likely not be pleased, and only Shyamalan’s core followers will walk away fully appreciating the movie. In the end, it may take a village to get Shyamalan to break his writing rut.
Nate’s Grade: C+