Sorry Mr. Brody, I’ve got to talk about The Village (2004). Also known as the last M. Night Shyamalan movie even close to being worthwhile (with a very low bar). And this one still doesn’t quite cut it.
The Village is bad. I will not waste effort trying to sugarcoat it. I’m not alone – go ahead and look at some reviews from when the movie hit theaters. Woof. Shyamalan has a new show coming to T.V. in 2015 called Wayward Pines (based on the novel Pines by Blake Crouch). From what I can gather, most pre-screening viewings so far have received mixed buzz. The positives? M. Night apparently does not have his hands in everything (as he often does, still for some reason), the show boasts a great cast, and a deliciously odd premise. So I take this look back as an opportunity to highlight my love/hate,-mostly-hate relationship with M. Night Shyamalan.
Shyamalan up to this point (2004) had made 2 highly entertaining, successful movies and one of my favorite movies (Unbreakable, not as successful). The Sixth Sense (1999) may lose some luster if you had the ‘twist’ spoiled for you, but the movie remains a very pivotal film of the era from at least a pop culture perspective and had an undeniable effect on folks who were adolescents at the time (C’mon how many times have you made an ‘I see dead people‘ joke?). The school scene? Freaked the ever-living poo out of me and still makes me queasy to this day. Looking back, this movie is not the pinnacle of cinema, but has an undeniable presence in the timeline of 90’s-movies History.
Unbreakable (2000) should really get a standalone post (and will, mental note) as a criminally underrated movie and a fascinating piece to look back on with the huge tide of superheroics on screens both big and small these days. We often hear about a ‘gritty realness’ these days as studios bring cartoons to life – Well, as a superhero nut, Unbreakable stands the test of time. I will never argue with those who do not enjoy the movie, but for better or worse, the concept explores a philosophical, dark, modern idea of superheroes with not so much a twist as a ‘bend.’ I always return, fascinated. Or maybe I just wish I had superpowers.
And then there is Signs (2002). I have a vivid memory of seeing this movie in theaters. The movie may have been the last experience to leave me so disoriented (non-Batman related, obviously, as I was delirious with joy for those). Showing very little, and playing with clicks and clacks and sounds in a quiet farm landscape, I remember nervously looking around as the sound mixing made it seem as though the visitors were all around the theater. Credit the sound mixing, too. It wigged me out, and the reveal of the aliens via the news/footage from a party shocked at the time. The movie, despite some flaws if you think too hard about the plot and/or plot conveniences, remains a very entertaining staple of cable-channel summer movie filling. Even if the movie grows weary upon re-watching(s), I will never forget that theater experience, so I give credit where credit is due.
Then we arrive in 2004. A great year. Despite some criticisms, Shyamalan had made three movies that had been worth discussing for (mostly) the right reasons. The Village comes out, boasting a cast that feels absurd to look back upon with our current lens: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson (a GWW favorite), Cherry Jones (President Taylor, 24 fans know), Judy Greer, Fran Kranz, Jesse Eisenberg, and Michael “bad stuff happens to my characters’ heads on TV” Pitt. Holy casting calls, Batman! That is an accomplished list of highly respected and accomplished actors, young & old, of Television and Cinema. Audiences were understandably excited.
Then we all saw the movie. Turd city.
No, that’s unfair. Watching the first time through, the movie actually builds up a pretty cool creepiness with the viewer thrown into an unknown place at an unknown time to a village (ohhhhh) troubled and seemingly surrounded by some unknown, horrible creatures. Based on that cast & description, you would think there is potential for the movie. You would be right. But Shyamalan clearly had hit a wall (yes, I carefully chose the idiom for you who have not seen this movie), serving up a twist that infuriated many viewers & critics, from yours truly to the great Roger Ebert. The Village, looking back, really just stinks. Overly serious, with a plot not nearly interesting enough for its heavy-handedness and ridiculous characters and dialogue, any drama built up is deflated by a lame close out to the film (I don’t just mean ‘the Twist.’ The last chunk of the movie is just plain dumb). M. Night Shyamalan tainted not only his movie, but his legacy as well. Whether or not his knowledge of this contributed to his future stinkiness may never be known.
Shyamalan followed with the unbearable Lady in the Water. Once again, with a good studio backing and some star power actors, the writer/director produced a really stupid movie. Fans of the directors and movies in general thought this was the low point. Oh, how wrong we all were.
Shyamalan continued his slide into the abyss with what I can only describe as the most hilariously asinine movie I have ever had the misfortune of paying to see in a theater. The Happening. Even typing that dumbass title I shake my head. This post is not about that film, so I will curtail my furious rant. Suffice to say, it has Marky Mark, Zooey Deschanel and involves the plants of Earth deciding to kill us all. Yeah. This movie physically hurts in the accomplished mind-blowing stupidity. This had to be rock bottom, for sure, moviegoers presumed. But in a twist he himself would envy, Shyamalan had one more flaming bag of horse dung up his sleeve. While I personally am not a fan of The Last Airbender, the cartoon upon which M Night’s most epic failure was based upon, I am familiar with the material and know it is adored by millions, young and old. The movie flopped and enraged die hards, cementing Shyamalan’s legacy as a promising figure who had lost his way, turned the wrong way trying to get back, and ended up somewhere in a special section of movie hell. I will not even waste your time bashing the colossal bomb of After Earth. All you need to know is there were large portions of backstory Shyamalan and crew tried to build into the ‘marketing’ that probably would have been better served as notes in actually world-building for the MOVIE ITSELF rather than tie-ins. Also, boo Jaden and Will Smith. BOOOOOO. Though other actors couldn’t save the film, they did not help (OK, so a little bashing).
What does this all mean? I don’t know. I am in the minority, still clinging to those three movies M. Night made 1999-2002 as decent, tainted but not ruined by his more recent stench. I will give the weird, the warped, anything with a mysterious or sci-fi bend a try. I think I do. Looking back, M. Night Shyamalan went off the deep end with The Village, hence the post. Going forward, his show Wayward Pines (N.B. he’s writing and producing, but not directing) will be an ultimate for me and many like-minded audiences. Nothing, ever, ever, ever, ever will erase the doodie heap Shyamalan left in his wake following The Village. I cannot un-see The Happening (Honestly, how dumb is that title?). But maybe this new show begins M. Night’s long and treacherous road back to non-awfulness. Maybe the show can help him raise up out of his own filth.
Or maybe it will be cancelled after one episode. Still love you, Matt Dillon! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just written 1000+ words about M Night Shyamalan. I am going to get my head examined.