M. Night Shyamalan with a camera is like a kid in a grown-up’s body. He’s megalomaniacal, but in a sincerely nice way. He’s made a notorious habit out of making films with twist endings because that’s the way he keeps you on a leash – he throws one final curveball that knocks you off your lid. You might like it (The Sixth Sense), and you might not (The Village). But either way, your forced to admit when all is said and done that you just drank his psychological Kool-Aid.
M. Night Shyamalan—third to first: his resume, in order of both first to last, and best to worst…
1. The Sixth Sense – Splendid debut. Well, technically he did do two other, lesser-known films, but this was his first commercial one, and a dandy at that. The twist? Bruce was dead the whole time.
2. Unbreakable—Alright. Hard to stomach the sight of the almighty Jules Winfield being dominated by a subway entrance stairs. The twist? Jules is secretly a badass supervillain.
3. Signs—Ending too dumb to overcome previous 90 minutes of masterful buildup. Kudos to Shyamalan for getting one last great performance out of Mel Gibson before he went nuts. The twist? Aliens hate water. Not only that, but they suck at doing their pre-invasion homework, invading a planet that is 3/4 stuff that can kill them.
4. The Village—Same lame ending as signs, except buildup was equally lame. Great performance from Bryce Dallas Howard before she started ruining sequels (Spider-Man 3, Terminator Salvation…be afraid Eclipse, be very afraid). The twist? It’s the present-day, the whole time.
5. Lady in the Water— No twist here, except that maybe – shocker! – making a movie about a bedtime story should be left to Disney (to which he actually tried to sell the script, but they wisely didn’t bite).
6. The Happening— Again, no twist ending here. But he made a huge mistake making something R-rated so preachy and eco-friendly, and casting Mark Wahlberg as something other than somebody who could kick your ass.
7. The Last Airbender– Fingers crossed.
Right now, Shyamalan is stuck—he wants to keep making movies born straight out if his id, but studios probably won’t keep letting him do it because we, the audience, have come to know exactly what to expect when we see the words ‘written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan’. We know to expect the unexpected…except after a while, the unexpected gets old. The five movies he’s written and directed since The Sixth Sense have each been a little worse then the one that came before it because Shyamalan just assumed we wouldn’t wise up to his game.
My guess is that Shyamalan will have to start doing more movies like The Last Airbender—already established franchises with an embedded style & vision. His own shtick—low-humming, supernatural suspense always building up to a denouement that redefines the logic of everything that’s previously happened—expired after The Village, except either nobody told him so, or he just didn’t get the hint. His movies all had been written and directed by him—conceived from his imagination. So it’s no wonder that they all unfold surrealistically, like dreams, with the inevitable ‘wake-up!’ moment meant to bring everybody back to their senses.
Shyamalan earned himself a lot of leeway and creative freedom with The Sixth Sense—he’s like the latest in a long line of directors who hit a home run in their first at bat and either got to do whatever they wanted for the rest of their careers (Quentin Tarantino), or ended up being relegated when the studio heads figured out they couldn’t live up to the hype (Michael Cimino).
In one way, Airbender is perfect for Shyamalan: it’s mostly kids doing cool, supernatural stuff in a mythological universe. It’s not set in the real word, so Shyamalan doesn’t have to worry about being constrained by real-world logic that’s failed him in the past. He can really take the story and only decorate the blank spots with his well-suited imagination, like falling into someone else’s acid trip and not having to worry about the hangover. If Airbender does serious box-office damage, don’t be surprised. Airbender unburdens Shyamalan with a story and a built-in appeal to the younger demographic.
Call me crazy (or retarded, or fat, or racist…it’s the internet—the world’s your oyster), but I think casting mostly white actors to uphold an Asian-influenced world is a subversive attempt by Shyamalan to force the viewer that knows anything about the original franchise to suspend disbelief in a more real world sense. It’s like he’s getting his twist out of his system right away and putting his stamp of ‘what-the-fuck?’ approval on it so everybody can hedge their bets before they sit down in the theater.
Will The Last Airbender break Shyamalan out of his slump, or send him further on his downward spiral?