Retrospective: Shyamalan, Down Memory Lane

by Irma Arkus

Shyamalan’s latest flick “The Happening” has been panned by critics and audiences alike. Despite the somewhat inventive premise, the plot involving plants as villains, did not go over so well with North American viewers.

Nontheless, it is fascinating to glance at Shyamalan’s filmmaking that has lately been taking a dive to the bottom. Shyamalan rose to top with The Sixth Sense in 1999. The film, featuring Haley Joel Osment, one of the creepiest child actors to ever appear on film, period, was centered on a boy who has the ability to detect and see ghosts who tend to cling to their usual haunts. Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is a child psychologist who is trying to help little Cole Sear. A seemingly straightforward, textbook case of psychosis, turns quiet little Cole into a child with a real connection to the supernatural.

The Sixth Sense was outrageously popular. It fueled the next wave of less-than-entertaining shows dedicated to paranormal and supernatural. And let’s not forget the sudden increase in use of psychics by police forces everywhere.

Shyamalan for a while had the dream job of being a director who got to make things he wanted. His consequent films, Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) were a delight to watch, but not equally for everyone.

Unbreakable is, and will be for a long time, a penultimate story of a superhero coming to terms with his superpowers and weaknesses. Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, an average man who is struggling to come to terms with his own self. A sole survivor of a train crash, David is seemingly impervious to physical injuries. Approached by Mr. Glass, a physically fragile comic book artist who sees himself as the exact opposite of David, the two slowly develop a deeper understanding of David’s powers.

The film was dark, tender, insightful with an unprecedented character development. A superhero film like no other, Unbreakable garnered either verocious fans, or entirely uninterested glances.

Signs (2002) starring Mel Gibson, was equally half-heartedly received. Gibson, a man struggling to connect with his children and faith after an accidental death of his wife, is no less than staving off an alien invasion. Character development extraordinaire is met by deeply flawed script – even though Shyamalan shows us what an average Joe in a corn-cob-town middle of nowhere would do during an alien invasion, even if we got to see the aliens…the plot still pends on aliens being a race of retarded invaders who have the technology and the numbers to invade an entire planet, yet fail to recognize their weakness to H2O?!!! Really? On Earth? The very “Blue Planet”? Water?!

The Village (2004) was vehemently rejected by audiences, and Lady in Water (2006) despite its complexities, interesting story-telling and charms, failed to entertain, as numbers of Shyamalan fans plummeted.

The Happening (2008), his latest project, is reviled by those who have seen it, and ridiculed by critics. What starts as a mysterious epidemic, a case of mass hysteria, quickly devolves into Mark Wahlberg’s dialogues with plastic flora. The plot twist is “the plants did it,” as humanity itself is in peril. The real twist, however, is that the film opening was going head to head with The Incredible Hulk. And everyone knows that Ed Norton beats Wahlberg any day.

That is the story of Shyamalan’s film. I am sure that there is a lot more to it. For one, I enjoy his films for their incredible pace, the kind of time it takes to tell a real story, with characters you grow to like, suspend your beliefs for, even if they are ridiculous.

The one thing that Shyamalan has is an incredible ability to tell a short story and spin it into a whole feature film. No other director has managed to do so, with such unparallel success. Yet, the fans hate things Shyamalan loves. They hate his superheroes, his aliens, his giant eagles scooping Nerfs from ground. Even if I happen to love them, his climb to the bottom is obvious.

Shyamalan is evidently in need of something new. A kind of film he hasn’t tried out for a size yet. Something sunnier and faster-paced, and with action. This is why the announcement that Shyamalan will be directing a live action version of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” based on Hayao Mizahaki’s same name animated feature, is a welcome change. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” tells a story of a young hero who will inherit the power to control water, air, fire, and earth amongst warring nations.