On a whim last night, I made a trip to Blockbuster (it’s been about a year — boy is that place losing business.) I was in the mood for a challenge and so I picked up M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. The trailer I had seen was appropriately mysterious and other than the fact that Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard were in the film, I didn’t know much else about it.
Before I hop into the review, I need to say a few words in defense of Night. I’ve heard folks say that he’s ‘gimmicky’ and that in person he’s very cocky with a big ego. I don’t know much about his personality, but I think folks should be going a little easier on him. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Particularly for The Sixth Sense, I think it was a very mysterious film that created a unique and eerie mood, but it was also very overrated. However, starting with Signs, I really started to become a fan. For each of his films, he manages to capture that sense of tension and suspense that carry your attention throughout the story. This film is no exception. For his ability to create tension….truly unpredictable suspense (where you have no idea of what’s going to happen next) I think he should be commended.
The area where people often try to take stabs at Night are for his endings. I had to watch The Sixth Sense a few times to appreciate how much of a technical marvel it was to have the film work on two completely different levels — even after you understand the ending. But after that film, people started looking for the “signature revelation at the end” and were pissed if it didn’t come. And in most films, Night kept giving it to us. I’m no genius, but in The Village, I saw the ending coming after about 20 minutes into the film. But unlike so many others, I didn’t let that take away from my enjoyment of the film. Taking your focus away from the ending, I think the movie is exceptionally entertaining, suspenseful, and, at times, shocking. I think people should take a break from trying to judge Night by “the strength of the endings” and enjoy the journey that he’s taking us on to get there. We all know where Space Mountain is going to let us out — the exit is right within view. But does that take away from the ride that happens in between the line and the exit?
The last area where Night is incredibly strong is in his sense of creativity — and this is where I’ll begin to discuss this film, Lady in the Water. In each film after The Sixth Sense, Night has managed to create a science fiction story within everyday settings. He brings us intricate, creative worlds with detail and rules that quickly help us to get into the lore of his story. Lady has this sci-fi theme perhaps more than any of his other films since Signs. Bryce Dallas Howard plays an other worldly creature who enters into the lives of a small community of people. To say any more would be ruining the journey. Night establishes the fact that Howard’s character is from another world within the first 20 minutes of the movie and spends the next hour plus developing the plot and keeping us guessing. This development happens sometimes at a very slow pace, and I found myself being easily distracted and occasionally even bored.
Lady can probably be best appreciated by lovers of sci-fi or comic books, but if you’re watching an M. Night Shyamalan film, well….you should already have expected that! There’s a world that we’re introduced to that cause you to absolutely put on your imaginative cap. If movies like Lord of the Rings and The Matrix upset you because they force you to stretch the capacity of your mind to include this “other world” — even for only two hours — this isn’t the one for you. Also, people looking for deep drama and Oscar-worthy emotional performances should look elsewhere. Especially when Night himself is onscreen. (More on that later.)
There are some solid character actors in the film. Jeffrey Wright (one of my favorites and a truly underrated actor) plays a small but interesting role. Paul Giamatti plays the same guy that he plays in almost every film. For me, his lack of versatility in leading roles is almost detracting from his credibility at this point. For the past five or six films, he’s the nervous, on-edge, slightly overweight, talkative, self-conscious-but loveable guy. This film is no exception. (Taking a slight tangent, I’d really like to see Giamatti start to challenge himself and act in roles that require him to venture out a bit. Perhaps play a villain. Or a womanizer. Anything but the guy from Sideways again. We’ve seen that already.)
And while I’m handing out advice on role selection, I need to turn my attention to the director, who seems to enjoy placing himself on the wrong side of the camera. Mr. Shyamalan — I thoroughly enjoy your films. They are imaginative and unique. However, if I could offer one small piece of advice, please stop acting in your films. It’s really starting to become annoying and it’s taking away from your art. It would be one thing if you actually had some chops. But the performances are bad. Really bad. In this role, I honestly believe that I could have done a better and more convincing job. Initially your appearances in your films were somewhat tolerable — cameos, of a certain flavor. But sadly in this film, the role is significant and you do it absolutely no justice. As a matter of fact, the moment you came on screen, things began to fall apart for me. Night lacks emotion, and in this role, it’s imperative that we see more than the subtlety that’s displayed. It’s really a travesty that Night can’t just stay behind the camera. It’s to the point now when I find myself waiting around for his cameo and each time it takes me a little bit more out of the experience and removes the fourth wall.
For all of the tension and sci-fi fantasy that Lady brings, I enjoyed the ride, but ultimately I found myself feeling a bit unsettled after it was over. No, there’s not a signature ending here. Not even remotely. This ending is the exact opposite — it’s really abrupt. The sad thing about the way that the movie ends is that I could sense from the score and the way that the music was rising to a crescendo that Night probably wanted us to feel a great sense of emotion towards the end of the film. And we do….well, kinda. But it’s really not enough to deliver anything that stays with you beyond the walk to the parking lot (or in my case, the walk to the Blockbuster drop to slide in the rental box.) In all fairness, I think I could benefit from seeing it again, but then again I’m already yawning at the thought of another viewing. So for me it’s a very intriguing and certainly a creative effort. But not a very memorable one.
The one thing I appreciate greatly about Night’s films is this continuing theme that every person — no matter how small and insignificant or ordinary they may seem initially — serves a purpose in his film (and thusly, on Earth.) Lady continues this theme and in fine fashion. This might have been the one aspect of Lady in the Water that carried me through to the end. If you watch it and look for this theme, you’ll understand what I mean. Spiritually as a follower of Christ, this means a great deal to me and I love the way that people emerge to fulfill their destiny within the story.
If you’re at all interested in The Lord of the Rings or even if you are a casual aficionado of sci-fi, give this film a try. You’ll enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect some huge “oh wow….so that’s what it all means!” moment. Cause it ain’t coming. And even though I wasn’t expecting it, in this film, I kinda wished that it was there. Perhaps I could have given it a higher recommendation if there was some twist that helped bring things together a bit more.
On the other hand, if you’re the least bit impatient when it comes to sci-fi or freeing your mind from the conventional rules of this world and opening it to an alternate reality, this one isn’t for you.