Thursday, September 10, 2015

Theory Thursday: Shyamalan is a Better Writer Than Director

M. Night Shyamalan in Signs
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The release of director M. Night Shyamalan's latest The Visit
Theory: M. Night Shyamalan is a better writer than director

Scene from Devil
Let's be honest with ourselves: nobody has director M. Night Shyamalan's back anymore. For starters, I am not sure that anyone is looking forward to this Friday's release of The Visit, even if it is a return to form as some claim. It's just that he has been continually disappointing time and again. To see his trailer in a theater is to be aware of a punchline as audiences groan at the sight of his name. I could have easily claimed that Shyamlan's last great movie was Signs: a statement that isn't controversial except that some would go further and say that either Unbreakable or The Village was his last good graces. Instead, I want to make an argument for something a little more controversial given his recent trajectory: he is actually a pretty good writer. It's the directing that he probably should retire from.

I know that this may be a little hard to swallow. After all, Shyamalan was the perfect balance of direction and story with The Sixth Sense. He even brought a certain aesthetic to Unbreakable and Signs. However, I want to ask you: what has he done since? I unfortunately have seen all of his recent films, hoping that there was some sliver of talent still stuck in his system. There's not an ounce of great direction in The Last Airbender or After Earth. Plain and simple. Yes, they are faulty from a story angle as well, but I do think that there's something that Shyamalan needs: interference. I applaud him for making original stories most times, but directing his work adds a pressure that I don't think he has. He is often thrown into a certain self-involved hole that results in him falling over his own feet.

Of course, his last true sign of any effort as a director came with The Happening. It was a film that was comically bad to the point that he came out and stated that he intentionally made a b-movie. It doesn't save the credibility. However, it's the first evidence that I wouldn't mind using to prove that he is better at writing than directing. The website Film School Rejects posted the theory that The Happening should have been a radio play. Yes, the visual accompaniment makes the dialogue more vapid, but at least without it there's a sense of traditional story telling through sound and expression. Even if this is a joke theory, I do think that there's merit in suggesting its believable nature.

Next, I will suggest proof that has nothing to do with Shyamalan as a director. In 2010, he proposed the idea of making a series of horror films based around his ideas. They were going to be called the Night Chronicles. Due to the lack of success, they never proceeded with the planned trilogy. However, this is where Shyamlan almost humbly stepped back and let others take his ideas for a spin. Yes, director Erik John Dowdle's Devil is technically Shyamalan's idea, but the screenplay was actually written by Brian Nelson (Hard Candy). The film was notoriously laughed at thanks to trailers that stated "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan." However, it was merely an idea presented by him.

The film was ridiculed thanks to this credit. Many dismissed it entirely upon its release. However, I do personally think that it was a horror film with the penchant Shyamalan twist that worked solely because it was almost exclusively a one room character drama. The mystery was about who the demon in the elevator actually was. There was tension rising at every turn and while it may not have been the most revelatory of stories, it did give us one of Shyamalan's best in a considerable time. Even if his name inevitably sunk expectations, it does feature what is probably his strong suit: his writing. I am not sure how much was Shyamalan, but I'd like to think that he had a considerable amount of an idea.

Of course, that is also his downfall technically: the twist. His films became too reliant and by the point of his fifth straight suspense film The Lady in the Water, he was running dry. Yes, it was a play on fairy tales, but it also felt like a bitter film that resorted to attacking everyone that had turned on him - specifically critics. It was atrocious in some ways that reflected his diminishing returns as a director. Up until After Earth, it was personally my least favorite of his films. This is why I am aware that calling him a greater writer is already suspect. Yet, I do want to hold his films between The Sixth Sense and The Village as evidence that he is a good writer. Even The Happening works if you actually give into Shyamalan's half-hearted defense of its b-movie nature.

Then there's the aforementioned After Earth. While it is true that Shyamlan did adapt The Last Airbender with his own screenplay, there is something to be said about a film that was not his style. The script was co-written by Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) and Shyamlan with an idea from star Will Smith. While it technically is still "written" by the director, I do think that Smith had way too much interference to make this a strong argument. In a lot of ways, it feels like a vanity project between Smith and his son Jaden that involved visiting Earth after it was found in shambles, repopulated with various monsters. It is a CG-heavy film that also feels in some ways reminiscent of the ideals of Scientology. 

It is also a film that mostly has issues because Jaden Smith isn't that great of an actor. True, there was some magic between the Smith family in The Pursuit of Happyness, but that was more directly a prestige picture. Here, there was supposed to be spectacle and a morality tale about courage. There wasn't any major twist. It was Jaden simply fighting monsters and giving arguably one of the worst performances in a Shyamalan film. Will may not be much better, especially as the gruff and quiet mentor, but with the film relying heavily on the appeal of Jaden, it makes plenty of sense why things didn't pan out and the film was a nightmare. That, and films related to Scientology don't usually succeed anyways (remember Battlefield Earth?). 

I don't know if that film would have worked with someone else in the lead, as the story was already dismal. Of course, Will Smith likely wouldn't have made it if Jaden wasn't the star. I also don't know if Shyamalan's flair was at all on display. I pretty much have forgotten the film, which wasn't just bad. It was boring bad. It is one of those types of borings that makes you appreciate the comical failures of The Last Airbender, even just a little. For what it's worth, the bad Shyamalan is often more entertaining than simply being atrocious. True, he once was technically a great director, but his work sense doesn't have that flair. Suggest to me the proficiency that he brought to After Earth and I'll suggest that you're a liar.

Scene from The Village
This is where things get tough. Considering that what I have said is by nature contradictory, since Shyamalan's writing is part of his demise, it is hard to make a clear case for this. Then again, that's the appeal of Theory Thursday. I want to believe that the man who got a Best Director nomination for The Sixth Sense will rebound because of that film's enjoyable nature. It wasn't even that it was one film. He turned out three that I generally like. But the thing is that his career has been the embodiment of diminishing returns to an embarrassing degree. I wouldn't personally invest in him, even if The Visit turns out to be a pretty good movie. I predict however that it will bomb.

The truth is that what makes Shyamlan good is his writing. I imagine that the twist is what inevitably hurt his career, but it is also what just makes him a compelling writer in general. He has a style that captures the viewer and causes us to unravel. Even if he was likely doomed from the moment they said "The Next Spielberg," I do think that he remains consistently entertaining when allowed to do his own thing. Yes, The Last Airbender and After Earth rank among his worst, but considering that his other films were all largely his own ideas, you get a stronger sense of who he is as an individual. It adds a certain fun to even the weakest of his work. 

I simply think that he is too attached to his own ideas and doesn't self-edit as much as he probably should. Considering that Devil was his best film in a large chunk of time, it does reflect that Shyamalan isn't hopeless. He just needs to work within the realm of collaborators that challenge him. After Earth felt like it was trying to be that with him as a director, but I do think that Will Smith was more to blame. Speaking as The Visit is stripped down comparatively, one can only hope that this is the return to form that we expect. I think that he has secretly taken the criticism and worked on his work well enough to improve his stories and narrative style.

I don't think it's controversial to say that Shyamalan is a better writer than director. It's indicative of his work. However, I do think that what needs to be done is that he works with someone else to make his next film. He needs to step away from the camera and get some input from a fellow artist. I seriously think it's what made Devil work. With The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan had that drive to impress. By The Village, he was already a regaled auteur - which sabotaged his career. He needs people to say no to him and force himself to find that drive that he once had. Maybe The Visit is it. Even then, I think that when my theory comes true, we will likely be singing the praise of Shyamalan again, remembering why he was such a big deal in the first place.

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