Archive for June, 2013

The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan

I’m an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. I’ll admit it. I love (most of) his movies, and can even find merit in the ones I don’t particularly like. There was a time when I felt that much of the criticism aimed at M. Night Shyamalan was unfounded, coming from people who just “didn’t get him.” But I “got him,” so well, in fact, that I wrote a thesis paper on his films back in college. They had something to do with what his films are really about (The Sixth Sense isn’t actually about ghosts, Signs isn’t actually about aliens, etc.). But now, I’m have a much harder time defending his movies, even to myself, probably because the spark he had  in the late 90’s/early 00’s is gone. Now I’m looking at movies that he’s directed where Shyamalan seems like he’s just phoning it in, and it’s a shame.

Looking back at his first commercial hit, The Sixth Sense, it’s easy to see why he was Hollywood’s “Golden Boy” for a moment. Newsweek even called him “the next Spielberg.” In The Sixth Sense all the way up to The Village, Shyamalan had displayed masterful control over his films; the writing, acting, mise en scene, and music were all in near-perfect sync. Look at the cinematography of Unbreakable — it’s gorgeous. The colors are a muted blue hue for much of the film which mimics the malaise felt by the characters. Then there’s a change, when Bruce Willis begins making use of his newly-discovered powers, which is accented by the subtle injection of color in some of the scenes, almost as if the characters’ new-found life is breathing life into the film itself. And the camerawork is something I look at for reference every now and then. Unbreakable‘s camera is wandering, with lots of handheld and crane shots, but it matches up perfectly with the dialogue. From a visual standpoint, it may be Shyamalan’s most ambitious film.

Fast forward to The Happening. As much as I enjoy M. Night Shyamalan’s films, this is one I can’t defend. It’s a misfire in all aspects: it’s miscast and though the music and cinematography harken back to his early work, with such an incredibly weak script, it all falls apart. I feel like this was a turning point for Shyamalan; what was working for him five movies ago is now working against him, and it’s probably why he’s moved into “director-for-hire” mode, directing big-budget features like The Last Airbender and After Earth.

In these effects-heavy movies, Shyamalan displays almost none of the inventiveness he did in his earlier, more supernatural films. While I’m not saying he needs to go back and do only movies about ghosts and aliens and creatures living in the woods, I feel like he’s lost his creative spark. A few years ago, he produced Devil, a low-budget supernatural thriller about people stuck in an elevator and one of them happens to be the Devil himself. It was a decent movie that suffered from predictability (and to be honest, some boredom as well). But, as part of Shyamalan’s “The Night Chronicles” brand of films, it felt like something more akin to what he was good at: telling stories of the fantastic, but rooted in reality.

In his recent After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan is working off a story by Will Smith and a screenplay co-written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli). While it is certainly a fantastical tale (a coming of age story set on Earth a thousand years into the future), there wasn’t much that was relatable about it. Jaden Smith’s story arc about a boy who must face his fears and survive on his own is lost amid the special effects (some of which looked terrible by today’s standards) and his own shortcomings as an actor. Visually, the movie is fairly straightforward, with none of the auteur-like camerawork I expect from Shyamalan. For a $130-million-dollar movie, it looked kind of cheap. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think After Earth is terrible like The Happening, in fact I think children would enjoy the movie, especially young boys looking for adventure. I just don’t think it’s as good as it could have been considering the talent involved.

Maybe he’s going through what Tim Burton is going through: relying to much on large budgets to make up for a weak script and laziness with the cinematography. Give him a budget that forces him to be creative with what he has. Perhaps he should stick with building up his “The Night Chronicles” brand while producing and nurturing up-and-coming directorial talent. Regardless of what you may think of his films, he’s worked in the film industry for some time now, and I’m sure he’s got a treasure trove of knowledge he could impart on a newer generation who’s used to working on small budgets with limited equipment.

Hopefully, some time spent producing and writing films (but away from the director’s chair) will be enough to recharge his creative batteries. A lot of people have commented on how his ego was considerably inflated after his early success, and hopefully scathing reviews and a disappointing box office gross will be enough to reign him in.

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June 6, 2013 at 10:25 am Leave a comment


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