The Shocking Twist…

16 Oct

In the first chapter of Starlette, I made a joke about M. Night Shyamalan movies. The joke was based on a lot of comments that I’ve seen about his work, and was coupled with a joke about Lost. Truth be told, I disagree with both criticisms. I’m a fan of Lost, right through the last scene of the last episode, and M. Night Shyamalan is one of my favorite directors of all time.

There seems to be this fad going around, where everything that Shyamalan does must be hated, even before it is released. Now granted, The Last Airbender was not my cup of tea, but I won’t really count that as being a true Shyamalan movie, since it was based on another story and adapted for the film. I’m a fan of Shyamalan’s original scripts.

So, where does this hate of Shyamalan come from? I think it has something to do with the strange perception that all of his movies include a shocking twist of some sort. This started with The Sixth Sense, which did have a great twist. However, not every Shyamalan movie has a twist like that… and half the time, he’s still criticized because the twist wasn’t good enough.

This is going to be a lengthy read. I apologize for that. It’s just that, if I really want to discuss why I like Shyamalan’s work, I need to discuss each of the movies that he’s made (except The Last Airbender because I haven’t had time to review the source material and compare it, and all of that). So, let’s start at the beginning of his popularity:

 

The Sixth Sense

This is perhaps the most popular of all of Shyamalan’s movies. Oddly enough, it’s near the bottom of my list of favorites. Not because it wasn’t a great movie, but because I can’t watch it without kinda-sorta holding a grudge against it.

The movie was brilliantly crafted. The atmosphere was perfect. The acting was great. The twist was shocking… but it is something that haunts Shyamalan’s career. Now, any development in any of his scripts is perceived as a “shocking twist”, and then people complain that it wasn’t shocking enough… more on that later…

One thing that this movie does, which differs from most of Shyamalan’s movies, is spell everything out for the audience. At the end of the movie, we’re walked through the entire plot and Shyamalan holds our hands through the entire unfolding of the storyline, so everything is very clear and very obvious. There’s really no need to look much deeper than the surface. This is not normal for a Shyamalan movie, which usually involves deeper meanings and hidden themes.

It’s a good movie. A classic… Just not my favorite Shyamalan film.

 

Unbreakable

The film that followed The Sixth Sense, and died in the box office because of it. Years later, it has a strong and loyal following, but when it was released it was seen as a flop. Why? Well… The curse of The Sixth Sense.

I remember seeing the early trailers for Unbreakable. It was all very mysterious, with hints of the supernatural. It was kinda played as something similar to The Sixth Sense, and at no point did I get the impression that it was a superhero movie. Simply put, they didn’t actually advertise this film, they advertised his previous film. So, what was the audience to do with that information once they got to the theater? It was obviously not what they signed up for, and so they left feeling like it didn’t meet expectations.

Is there a twist at the end? Some would argue that the Mr. Glass reveal was a twist, but that it wasn’t very shocking. I would argue that it wasn’t very shocking because it wasn’t so much a “twist” as it was a “reveal”. It didn’t completely change the movie. It brought the movie into focus. It was the natural progression of the story that we were watching. We didn’t feel jarred by it because it wasn’t supposed to be jarring; it was supposed to be the natural order of things.

I’m glad that Unbreakable has established a following after its release. It’s a really great movie, and an interesting take on the superhero concept. The characters are layered and interesting and the movie doesn’t go overboard… in fact, that’s one of the things I love about Shyamalan’s movies. He doesn’t constantly push things beyond their breaking point. Things can be quiet and simple, which makes them beautiful.

 

Signs

This has to be my favorite Shyamalan movie, and possibly my favorite movie of all time. I have seen it more times than I can count, and each time I watch it, I walk away with some new revelation.

The first time I saw the movie, in the theater, I remember thinking about it on my way home. I remember hoping that there would be a director commentary on the DVD, because I knew that there was so much going on in the movie that I had missed when I first watched it.

There’s no commentary on the DVD. All of the work is on my shoulders, and I actually appreciate that now. I don’t need Shyamalan to tell me what it all means. In a way, it doesn’t matter what he thinks it means, because the film is what it is and we take from it what we take from it. Once a story is out there, the audience interpretation is just as valid as the writer’s.

The first realization that brought this whole movie into focus for me was that it wasn’t about aliens. You have to set aside what some characters actually say. Honestly, what do they know that we don’t? They’re just making guesses, and so we can’t trust every word out of their mouth as being the gospel truth.

The movie is about faith. It’s about demons, both literal and metaphorical. See, the characters have all of those conversations too (in addition to the alien conversations), but those moments are so quiet that you don’t read them as explaining the main story.

Let’s look at the weakness of the “aliens” in the story: Water. It’s a symbol of purification. Baptism. Cleansing. One criticism of the movie is that these aliens come to a world that is made up largely of their greatest weakness… But that’s assuming that these are aliens, which I don’t think they are. So, the question becomes: Why are demons here?

The movie speaks of an ancient weapon, discovered in the middle-east, which fights off the attackers. The middle-east is the motherland of the world’s most dominant religions. The ancient weapon is faith or prayer. Redemption is how we ward off the attackers.

Now, these are all assumptions made by me. I know that Shyamalan probably doesn’t share the same religious views as I do, but the theme carries into a lot of different belief systems, I think. So, I’m not sure if this is what he was going for. I just know that it’s there when I watch it.

Watch the movie again, with this thought in mind. Each time you see it, a new layer of the onion will peel back and you’ll see slightly more of the picture. It’s a very interesting film.

There’s no twist here. There’s no shocking revelation. The film is just a quiet, beautifully shot piece of art. (My favorite shot comes toward the end, when Bo hurries to look through the window as Merrill fights the “alien”)

This film is brilliant. The layers, the characterization, the visuals… It’s just a great movie.

 

The Village

This one might be my least favorite. Still placing it above most movies out there, but not high ranking on the list of Shyamalan movies. I know there was technically a twist in this one, but I figured it out a year before the movie was released, when I first saw the trailer. So, I went into the movie with that in the back of my head.

Some elements of the plot seemed forced to me. They draw attention to the fact that air traffic was restricted over this place, which only highlights a plot hole that would have easily been overlooked if it simply wasn’t mentioned. Airplanes can’t travel over this area, but that raises the questions of satellites and other issues which I never would have even considered if they hadn’t been raised by Shyamalan.

That said, the movie was still good. It was about characters, and those stories are still interesting whether there’s a twist or not. The look of the movie was really nice, and the story that played out was still interesting. A twist is only good the first time around anyway. So, once you take that element away, the movie has to hold up as a good story. Once you know who’s behind the mask in Scream, the only thing that makes you want to watch that movie again is the story that plays out around that mystery. The Village did that well, and I still enjoy watching the movie, just for the characters.

Still, it’s not my favorite Shyamalan movie of all time.

 

Lady in the Water

I actually really like this one. It’s a fun bedtime story. It’s like watching The Neverending Story in some ways. The story isn’t terribly complex, though it has strong themes. There’s no twist. The characters are likable enough and quirky enough to make the story fun. The monsters are cool. The legend within the story is intriguing.

I don’t know what people were expecting when they went to see this movie, but the fact that they released a children’s book to go along with it should have been a clue that this wasn’t meant to be The Sixth Sense. It’s not dark and broody. The atmosphere is something like Rear Window, but the tone of the film is much more fun. It’s a modern fairy tale, and I thought that it was well done. It had all of the elements of a classic fairy tale, without blatantly ripping off the old stories. It had strong themes, and good characters.

People complain that Shyamalan cast himself as a visionary character in the story. They criticize him for casting himself at all, and claim that he has a large ego because of it.

When I watch the movie, I don’t see that. First of all, directors have acted in their own movies for decades. It’s not uncommon, so I don’t get why it’s a big deal here.

The character seemed to me like a commentary on how Shyamalan was treated after The Sixth Sense. He was supposed to be the second coming of Hitchcock (and I still say that he’s right up there). He was supposed to be the new face of Hollywood. He was supposed to change the world through his movies. He didn’t cast himself as the visionary… everyone else did. He just had fun with that in Lady in the Water, the same way he had fun with the movie critic.

I love how the critic saw the world. It was all about these formulaic stories which had to unfold in certain ways, and he held firmly to those views even as the plot was going against the grain… Shyamalan is praised for being original in his writing, but torn to shreds because people don’t want anything too original. They want to walk out of the theater knowing which mental box they’re supposed to store that movie in. They want the twist, which is why they insist that all of his movies have twists, yet they criticize him for constantly sticking twists in his movies… even though they don’t all have twists.

Anyone else getting a headache?

 

The Happening

This movie was torn. To. Shreds. People hated this movie so much, it’s not even funny.

Only, it is funny… kinda.

For starters, in order to really drive home the point of this movie, I think that it’s best to watch it in black and white. Go to your TV’s color settings and turn that sucker down (remember where you started though, so you can put it back after the movie).

Suddenly, the movie is in context. The way the characters dress. The way the characters speak… It’s a 1950’s paranoia thriller. In the 50’s everything was about the nukes. They would destroy the world. They would create mutant monsters. They were the McGuffin (a term which is easily found on Wikipedia if you don’t know what I’m referring to) which propelled a lot of movies of that era because nukes were the great unknown force that people were facing back then.

So, what do we have that’s similar to that today? The environment. Global warming. Terror in the streets as people panic over the impending apocalypse, brought about by man’s upsetting the natural balance of things. In short… we’re scared of the wind.

The movie doesn’t make fun of the environmental movement, just as those movies about nuclear monsters didn’t mock the threat of nuclear war. It was just a commentary on the fact that the mentality is the same in many ways.

We even see one scene, as the characters make a stop for supplies while on the run, where there is a nuclear power plant in the background (an oddly clean energy source, for those keeping score of the conflicting paranoia of the times).

One genius element of the movie is that the first time we see the main character, played by Mark Wahlberg, he’s discussing the disappearance of bees in North America. He clearly says that scientists will come up with some explanation for what’s happening to them, but the truth is that some things just happen in nature. We explain things for our own comfort, even when we don’t really know the answer.

What makes this funny is that we’re given an answer by scientists on the TV, and generally speaking, the audience seems to buy what those scientists say. We’re told not to buy it, but moviegoers buy it anyway… and then it becomes one of the main criticisms of the movie.

Like with Signs, you have to throw away what you’re outright told, and go with what you see happening in the movie. That’s why I love Shyamalan movies, I think. You can’t just go along with the ride and have it all explained to you (like in The Sixth Sense). You have to stop and wonder if what you were told is really what you saw.

Watch the movie in black and white. It’s much better that way.

 

Devil

Shyamalan didn’t direct this one. He produced it and came up with the story for it, but it was written and directed by others. Still, I think that there are a lot of Shyamalan trademarks here. The story is relatively small in scale. It’s about strong characters, more than the outward plot device. It’s about exploring something inside of those people. The way it played out was really interesting and it was a good movie. I don’t know if they’re going to continue the Night Chronicles or not, but I hope they do. Shyamalan has a Hitchcockian vibe to him. He’s not ripping off Hitchcock, but he’s the type of guy who has a strong vision and interesting ideas. I enjoy the way that he presents his stories.

 

Shyamalan has been torn apart. People hate him, often just because it’s cool to hate Shyamalan. I’m not saying that people can’t dislike his movies for legit reasons. That’s all a matter of opinion, but I think it’s a shame that one of the few people who really tries to be original and creative in that industry is mocked for it. Most movies fit into neat little boxes. Shyamalan might not always hit it out of the ballpark, but I think it’s refreshing to watch a movie made by someone who is trying to explore a little bit. I like that I have to watch some of his movies a few times in order to really get a feel for them.

 

So, in closing… Sorry about those jokes in Starlette, Mr. Shyamalan. They weren’t so much about you as they were about those characters and the fact that certain opinions are often just as hip and trendy as the latest clothing styles.

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