M. Night Shyamalan's ridiculous, anime-inspired fantasy spectacular, The Last Airbender was released yesterday. Let's take a look back at the filmmaker's career and see how he reached this point.
How did Shyamalan's films evolve into novelty acts, extended Twilight Zone episodes that evaporate from your memory? Unfortunately, The Sixth Sense has been lumped among these movies despite being the only one that transcends its spooky concept. The Sixth Sense isn't a supernatural thriller, but rather an intimate drama about a boy who happens to see ghosts. Cole (Haley Joel Osment) could have suffered from any psychological issue. The film is a portrait of loss, of how we are haunted by it when loved ones pass on. The "ghosts" are merely a manifestation of Cole's feelings about his father's absence. They are symbols of fear, anger, and longing.
Perhaps I am giving Shyamalan too much credit as a writer-director here, for the rest of his films are painfully literal in comparison.
Take Shyamalan's sophomoric effort, Unbreakable. Placing a comic book origin story in a realistic setting is not exactly groundbreaking. Plus, the protagonist's line of work as a security guard is laughably convenient and obvious to his destiny as a superhero. Unbreakable may be a radical in its slow-burn pace and refusal to deliver the action beats typical of its genre, but it is razor thin.
Fusing Hitchcockian suspense with Spielbergian warmth, Shyamalan took a step up with his next film, Signs. The alien invasion thriller is smart to focus on one family's struggles rather than the world at large. The film also tapped into the zeitgeist with the family's fears reflecting our post-9/11 sense of vulnerability and dread.
However, this was when Shyamalan's films started feeling like gimmicks. He started embracing the genres he was working in rather than deconstructing them like he did with The Sixth Sense.
Next up is The Village. A minor tragedy in that this film had so much potential. With its Victorian era look and feel (brilliantly captured by master cinematographer Roger Deakins), eccentric characters, and chamber drama style of Arthur Miller, it had greatness in its grasp. Unfortunately, Shyamalan was defeated by his desire to deliver on the Twilight Zone-esque twists. Why couldn't the film just be about monsters in the woods of a Victorian age village? What was with the "it was all a dream" ending? That twist ruined the film's attempt at being taken seriously as an allegory for terrorism.
Lady in the Water and The Happening were self-important visions of modern America. While Lady was about our sociopolitical stress (Shyamalan cast himself as a man with all the answers to the world's problems), The Happening was a lame disaster movie reflecting current environmental dangers. I like how both films attempted to reflect the times, I just wish they were better films. If the sci-fi horror genre is going to hold a mirror up to society's fears, it needs a stronger voice than Shyamalan's.
Shyamalan attempted to reflect the times, but his most recent films were too outlandish to do so effectively. They lack the intimacy, the personal quality of The Sixth Sense. They feel like visions of another planet altogether.
Now it seems the filmmaker is completely regressing to fantasy. The Last Airbender doesn't look to make any attempt to reflect our world. It's time to come back down to Earth, Shyamalan. Don't let Hollywood - or your success - warp your vision of the world.