A Summary of Shyamalan

I still get a certain amount of visitors who are here because they’re interested in or appalled by the fact that I refuse to join the geek chorus of people condemning the work of M. Night Shyamalan. But the posts they’re likely to see are out of date and weren’t necessarily written as a detailed analysis of his work.

Well, neither is this post, but at least it’s up to date. Until After Earth comes out. So. My opinion, briefly summarized.

On Shyamalan:

  1. Shyamalan is a very talented director. He gets good performances out of his actors and makes movies that look beautiful, with well-considered, elegant cinematography.
  2. Shyamalan is also a very talented writer. His movies touch on a variety of personal and philosophical matters in ways that are more complex than they at first appear.
  3. Appreciation of Shyamalan’s work is generally hindered by the tendency in modern culture to suddenly declare individual artists to be anathema to all that is good and holy. For an excellent example of someone who was hounded and ridiculed no matter what he made, see Ben Affleck. On the internet it is very easy for a kind of hipsterish anti-intellectual attitude to become the only acceptable point of view in regards to an artist or an artistic work (see the Matrix sequels, with which very few people are willing to engage).
  4. Appreciation of Shyamalan’s work is further hindered by the categorization mentality that the internet has popularized, which leads to all of his movies being parsed in exactly the same terms: where’s the twist? (This is not helped by the fact that his first two movies do indeed have a twist.) Thus any plot development or change in our understanding is seen as a “twist” and declared to be disappointing; particularly since his movies are seen as if they were puzzles in which the twist is the main point, which is true of none of his movies, not even The Sixth Sense.
  5. Appreciation of Shyamalan’s work is even further hindered by publicity campaigns that present his movies in entirely inappropriate ways, thus shaping viewer expectations. The best example of that is The Village, which was marketed as a horror movie (against Shyamalan’s objections).

On his films:

The Sixth Sense: A moving character piece. The twist ending is effective not simply because it’s a surprise, but because it’s an important insight into one of the main characters.

Unbreakable: Another character piece, this one focused very much on the need to find one’s place. Great perfomances, including a realistically bittersweet romance that is more central to the film than any heroics. Also features a unique and outstanding score.

Signs: A near-perfect horror movie marred by an ending that could work in theory, but doesn’t. Would be a better film if it tried to explain its ideas less, but the great moments outweigh the problematic ones.

The Village: Probably my favourite of his films. A movie that is not what it seems; first it appears to be historical, then horror; but at heart it’s a love story. Without question Shyamalan’s most layered work, in which many assumptions are questioned. Incredibly rich in detail.

Lady in the Water: A work of magical realism; a fairy-tale about the modern world, in which things are messy and don’t always do what we think they should. Shyamalan portrays the artist’s hope that one’s work might inspire others to do good, even beyond one’s own lifetime; nothing megalomaniacal about that.

The Happening: A Hitchcockian B-movie (intentionally so). Contains some genuinely disturbing moments and some fantastic ideas, but its attempts to do the equivalent of Hitchcock’s The Birds with wind fall flat. The lead performances go back and forth between charming and unconvincing. John Leguizamo is compelling. There are far worse horror movies, but the movie seems to be lacking the care and detail of earlier Shyamalan films. The title is just daft. I still had fun.

The Last Airbender: A catastrophe of mediocrity. My original review of this film was far too positive, even though it wasn’t really positive – the people I saw the movie with liked it a lot more than I did, and I saw a number of far more terrible fantasy movies around the same time. There are glimpses of Shyamalan’s talent here and there, but the film itself is tedious, badly written and miserably cast.

Devil: Have not seen this. Do note that Shyamalan’s connection to it is tangential at best.

On racism in The Last Airbender:

This is complicated, because the film succeeds admirably in some areas (Uncle Iroh, Prince Zuko, Commander Zhao, Fire Lord Ozai) and fails abominably in others (basically everyone else, but especially Katara and Sokka).

You may not be aware of this, but my focus at university was postcolonial studies, with an emphasis on the depiction of Native North American peoples on film, so I’m actually quite sensitive when it comes to this subject. So why did I have a problem with the people calling the film racist? Mainly because I was bothered by the hypocrisy, to be honest – which was revealed the most obviously when people made racist and homophobic jokes about Shyamalan. And because I felt bothered that these people had suddenly “discovered” this age-old issue, but while insisting on the importance of representation did not mind at all that the main characters in the animated series were also played by whites. (What, did you think native people only care about representation in one format? Millions of children looked up to these characters as role models.)

Nevertheless, and though I very much object to the culture of race-obsessed identity politics that has since come into vogue (and led to the attacks on the explicitly anti-racist Cloud Atlas, reinforcing rigid ideas of race rather than challenging them), I must say clearly that there is something deeply wrong with the casting of the lead characters in this movie. Unlike Cloud Atlas, the casting does not serve some sort of artistic purpose – we’re not seeing a reimagining of what native peoples might look like, for example, which would have been daring and interesting. No, we only have white protagonists because the studio thinks that sells better. Now, given the presence of all the Fire Nation actors and what he’s said in interviews, I think Shyamalan was trying to make an anti-racist movie within the parameters set by the studio… but it doesn’t work, and as it stands it is not OK. That doesn’t make The Last Airbender more racist than a lot of other Hollywood films (Transformers, for example, is ten times as bad), but that’s not much of an excuse.

On Shyamalan’s future:

I still think Shyamalan is a very talented director, and the way he and his films get picked on strikes me as absurd. (Especially the constant attempts to make him look like an evil megalomaniacal villain by taking bits of interviews out of context.) I’m glad After Earth is being marketed without an emphasis on his name, because at this point he could make the best movie in human history and people would still dismiss it for having a predictable twist. All in all, I think he would benefit from working on something a little more different: a small indie political film, or a comedy (he does comedy rather well, particularly in Signs), or a Jason Statham action movie – just something fresh and out of his comfort zone. A lot of directors could use a bit of change, if you ask me.

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3 Comments

  1. Now I want to see Lady in the Water. Thanks for the recommendation! Also, +1 for defending the Matrix sequels. They didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the original, but why people hate them with a passion is beyond me.

    As for “predictable” twists that weren’t supposed to be surprises in the first place, I’ve had the same kind of feedback on my own amateurish prose. I don’t know what the problem is; it may have something to do with the fact that subtlety doesn’t work in fiction, but people expect it anyway.

  2. Also, +1 for defending the Matrix sequels. They didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the original, but why people hate them with a passion is beyond me.

    Well, in my opinion they actually surpass the original, though they are more flawed than it. I think the main reason people dislike them is that they are quite different – they question many of the relatively simple philosophical ideas of the original, and are much more complicated and layered in their structure. Not that the first one is stupid, far from it, but the sequels both build on it and undermine it in ways that we’re not used to seeing in the cinema.

  3. I’ve only seen Signs (a while ago, and I thought it was pretty good) and The Happening (which I didn’t), so I can’t really comment on his filmography, but having gone to film school he does get a lot of hate. I will say I thought the trailer for After Earth looked boring before I learned Shyamalan was directing, but I’m not sure if that’s bias against Will Smith or my strong opinions on science fiction (I grew up reading Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, watching without really understanding Babylon 5).

    I will say I’m tempted to agree with you about the Matrix. As a movie I didn’t like Reloaded as much, but the scene with all the TV screen images of Neo having different reactions sticks out more to me than almost any scene from the original.