Filmmaking is running into rough times. We see plenty of movies made every year. In 2007 there were over 600 new movies released. Very few of the people behind those movies stand out as possible legends in the movie business however. Meanwhile, the legendary names who have entertained and touched the lives of the common moviegoer – Spielberg, Lucas, Coppolla, Scorcese, and the like – aren’t getting any younger.
Amidst this crisis of identity appeared M. Night Shymalan, who made his presence as a filmmaker known almost a decade ago with the stunning Sixth Sense, which thrilled audiences with one of the industry’s more memorable twists. The next two movies from Shyamalan really set his formula in concrete. The writer/director showed his love of approaching genres we have grown comfortable with from a different angle than we were used to. Along the way his movie would encounter a memorable twist that would leave the audience reeling.
Unfortunately, after three movies, Shyamalan fell into a bit of a repetitive trap. By the time the writer/director’s fourth film came (The Village), the audience had gotten a little too used to his approach. Most people picked out the story’s big twist before setting foot in a theater, and the familiar territory (the power of myth and legend) wasn’t quite familiar enough for enough people. Joseph Campbell fans aside, many found the story an incredible disappointment compared to the power player’s previous flicks.
Shyamalan probably could have suffered one fallback and been fine, but then the filmmaker compounded his mistake with The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, a poorly-executed promotional tool for The Village which attempted to play on the same theme of the power of myth, only with a weakly-crafted myth surrounding Shyamalan himself. Add on top of that his follow up film, The Lady in the Water, which matched The Village thematically, and it’s no wonder M. Night’s career started to decline, proving he wasn’t the new legendary director we had hoped.
Disappointments be damned, I still think there’s hope for Shyamalan to become one of the more memorable names in filmmaking. With that hope, I will be approaching The Happening with an open mind. After all, it’s possible that the writer/director has learned from his mistakes and changed his approach to his art. In case that doesn’t end up being the case, here’s a few things I think Shyamalan should consider in the future.
Time to break out of the genre. Although there’s been a variety in the content of Shyamalan’s films, they almost all qualify as dramatic thrillers, particularly thanks to some sort of plot twist along the way. If you consider the greater filmmakers, you have a group of people who have explored other genres. Spielberg could have successfully continued making movies along the lines of Jaws, Duel, and Close Encounters, but it’s because the filmmaker has been willing to explore such a variety of stories and tell them in different ways that Spielberg has really achieved a legendary status. Sure, some of that exploration resulted in failures, but at least he was trying new things. Shyamalan would do well to give it a try.
Leave the surprise behind. If you ask anyone about Shyamalan, they rapidly associate his name with a big plot twist. Every movie the filmmaker has crafted has had some sort of major twist. Whether it catches the audience off guard like The Sixth Sense or helps pull all the loose elements of the movie together like Signs, there’s going to be something there. The problem is, once you know a movie has a plot twist, you start anticipating it, detracting from the film in front of you by second guessing everything that’s happening. The best twist Shyamalan could offer now is a movie without a twist – something straightforward that catches the audience off guard by not offering a major reversal of events.
Give someone else’s words a try. I think the quickest way Shyamalan could achieve both of these suggestions so far would be by putting aside writing duties for a little while and letting someone else do the work. This becomes a stretch of Shyamalan’s directing duties, as he has to approach a script he didn’t craft from scratch. How does he cast a movie when he didn’t have the roles cast in his head before the part was written? Again, it could be an experiment in failure, but I think it’s one that would test his filmmaking abilities a bit more.
Don’t be afraid to take advice from others. No, I’m not suggesting Shyamalan has to listen to this list of ideas. After all, I’m just a film critic, and I think Shyamalan made his feelings about those pretty clear in Lady in the Water. However, enough people gave him feedback and warnings on The Village and Lady in the Water to choke a horse (proverbially) and create a tell-all book (literally). Shyamalan isn’t in this business alone and there are people with a lot more experience than he has. He should listen to their opinions occasionally; not all of them are just meddling business executives, and their guidance might lead to a better product.
Finally, pick one: actor or director. I thought it was really cool when Shyamalan took after the great Alfred Hitchcock by putting in small appearances in his own movies. Unfortunately, over time those roles got bigger and bigger, leading up to the completely egotistical appearance in Lady in the Water as a writer who will unite the world through his words. Again, look at the great filmmakers – how many of them put in cameos in their own movies? Secondly, look at M. Night Shyamalan. He’s just not that great of an actor. He needs to start putting the professionals into those roles and go back to being the two-second doctor behind the counter or something if he really needs to appear in his own stories.