Hollywood Mysteries: M Night Shyamalan (Part III: Still Falling)

(You can find Part I here and Part II here)

By 2008, I had completely soured on M Night. “The Lady in the Water” was that bad. I honestly had no expectations of him any more, and no anticipation of his future projects. If he was atop my favorite working directors list in 2002, he was nowhere near it in 2008.

Which is why I was surprised when trailers for his next film, “The Happening” were intriguing. It was apocalyptic looking and moody, and features that great shot he got of bodies falling through the air.

What if “The Lady in the Water” were an aberration? I mean, you take that movie out, and the guy’s filmography was awesome. Three great flicks and one ok one. So maybe he just had one wild idea and he whiffed on it. I mean, even if it sucked, it was still…. unique. What if now he was pissed off over being called a hack, and this movie was his return to form? With a vengeance?

Oh my God no. No, no, no. LOL.

For the second time in two movies, M Night Shyamalan delivered upon us one of the worst movies ever made. Seriously, if I were at a party and I said “Quick, let’s play a game! Everyone name one of the worst movies they’ve ever seen (snapping my fingers, pointing at someone)” If that person comes out with “The Lady in the Water” or “The Happening” my response is gonna be “Ooooh, good one!” either way.

For the first time in a Shyamalan movie, the acting bears a share of why the movie sucks. In “Lady” everything was so bad you couldn’t even see the acting. Your brain was too busy trying to sort out all the nonsense being shoved at it. But here, the plot is straightforward enough that the acting can take its place on the stage. Providing leaden lines and wooden reactions is Mark Wahlberg. Chiming in with wide eyed disbelief and overall vapidity is Zooey Deschanel. Together they make one of the worst leading couples ever.

Imagine Shyamalan as a basketball coach for a moment. If once upon a time he was coaching Willis and Gibson and Osment into acing threes from three point range (picture them out there with one of those wheeled racks of basketballs, swishing nothing but net shots), here he has Wahlberg and Deschanel tossing up bricks. And by bricks I mean real bricks – baked rectangles of clay. Instead of one of those wheeled basketball racks, picture them throwing real bricks at the hoop with a tray of real bricks next to them instead… chucking them up and clanging them off the rim or whacking the backboard, then the bricks cracking and shattering as they fall to the floor with a thud, and that completes the metaphor. That’s how bad they are here.

And the premise? Oh my god. Ok. Spoiler I suppose, but if you havent seen this flick, you shouldn’t anyways. The “villain” in this movie – the “culprit” behind the wave of mass suicides sweeping the planet is… the trees. And flowers. Vegetation. The flora of Planet Earth has begun emitting a deadly airborne neurotoxin in order to eliminate the human species and re-balance nature.

You know? Some ideas just sound better on paper. And this is one of them. When your heroes are running from a breeze in a field saying things like “It’s the Wind!!! Come On!! Run!!”. It’s ridiculous. Ever seen actors acting in front of a green screen on dvd special features or wherever? That’s what its like here, like they’re pretending to react to an invisible enemy, except in this case, the director’s not going to CGI anything in later. This is it, this is the movie. There’s a scene where – honest – Wahlberg stares in terror at a houseplant. It made me crack up the first time I saw it, and has me smirking now thinking back on it. HOW DUMB?? I mean, didn’t anyone think of that when they read this? Shouldn’t Marky Mark have asked his agent, “So… I’m supposed to be afraid of the plant?”

So at this point, I was completely done with M Night. His filmography grades now read A++, A, A-, C, F-, F-. I had also gone from seeing his movies on opening weekend (through “The Village”), to buying them on dvd (“Lady”), to waiting for them to hit cable (“The Crappening”). He was like an honor roll student who started doing drugs. I couldn’t figure out what had happened to him, and I only cared now because of the strength of movies that were already a decade old.

In between then and now, Shyamalan wrote and directed “The Last Airbender”, which I haven’t seen. I suppose, once it hits cable, I’ll watch it. It has – unbelievably – an even lower Tomatometer score than “The Happening” (6% to 18%).

Here are some of my favorite blurbs from it’s Rotten Tomatoes page, in order to give some context of why I believe, without having seen it, that Shyamalan’s downward trend has continued:

“Mere words can barely describe the sheer inanity on display.” – Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat.

“Why do the water tribe have so much difficulty defeating their fire opponents when the battle takes place on the ocean?” – Andreas Heinemann, Flicks.co.nz

“Unspeakably bad dialogue delivered by excruciatingly bad actors in a plot so illogical and stupid it kills unicorns.” – Marc Fennell, Channel 10 Australia

And that’s just page one.

Roger Ebert leads his review by saying ” ‘The Last Airbender’ is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented”

You get the idea. The thing is too, the real crime of “The Last Airbender” is that the cartoon series from Nickelodeon was excellent. (They’ve announced a sequel, and I’m extremely excited about it) Not only was it a fantastic, fantastic cartoon, it was RIPE fodder for a fantasy franchise. I mean, if it had been done properly, it could have been a better franchise than “Harry Potter”. It has just as many movies in it, and far less McGuffin chases. But Shyamalan screwed the pooch.

In the end, the cold hard facts are these. M Night has been delivering an ever decreasing calibre of movie since the very first movie he made. These charts are well circulated, but for those who haven’t seen them, here you go:

How far down as he gone? It’s gotten to the point where his name was famously jeered during showings of the trailer for “Devil”, a movie he only produced.

What the hell happened to this guy?

I heard a podcast earlier this year with Kevin Smith. I think it was on Filmschoolrejects. Anyways, in it, Smith basically confesses that he realizes his movies have sucked at times, and explains the fact that he honestly ran out of ideas at one point. As a disenfranchised young man, he had some things to say, had some ideas for some movies to make, and he lived the dream. He got to make them. And then… he was still expected to keep making movies. So he wound up making movies that he didn’t have his heart into – not that he wasn’t trying his best, just that they didn’t MOVE him to be made like “Clerks” or “Mallrats” or “Chasing Amy”. I’m not really a Kevin Smith fan, but he was so candid and illuminating that I really gained a lot of respect for him.

Maybe that’s what happened to M Night. Maybe he just… ran out of good ideas and had to keep working in spite of it. Maybe he was never that good to begin with, he only had a couple of lucky scripts that the actors bought into wholeheartedly, and then they put their best efforts into them and carried the day…. I don’t know. It’s still a mystery.

I do know that M Night is reportedly making a sci-fi flick with Will Smith and his son Jaden. I suppose if anyone can resurrect his career, the biggest box office draw on Earth can. Not that Shyamalan needs the gate, his movies have made enough money to keep him in business. I just can’t imagine this being any good. That’s where I’m at now. It’s a shame.

But the biggest shame of all is, even if it IS good, I wont be able to call Shyamalan a “Great Director” ever again. It’s sad, because at one moment in time, I was SO sure he would be. But now, the damage has been done, and it’s irreparable. Every Director has a stinker or two on their resume somewhere… that’s fine. But a “Great Director” does not throw out three consecutive shitbombs in a row.

2 thoughts on “Hollywood Mysteries: M Night Shyamalan (Part III: Still Falling)

  1. Great series, and as someone who as seen The Last Airbender, I can safely say it’s just as bad as you hear it is.

    Also, I’m glad you brought up the Kevin Smith comment. As a Smith fan though, I can say I’ve never seen one of his films that I thought was bad. Even Mallrats makes me laugh at points. Granted I haven’t seen Jersey Girl or Cop Out.

    • I’m actually not that big a Smith fan… I like him well enough, I just think he’s much more talented as a self promoter than he is a director.

      But his candor in that interview that I mentioned was MIND BOGGLING. I’ve never heard any artist be so frank about their own limitations.

      Say what you want of the guy – and I HAVE – he’s a really self aware individual. He knows how his own score card reads and why.

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