9 July 2008

THE HAPPENING (Dir. M Night Shyamalan, 2008, US/India) - What ever happened to M Night Shyamalan?

To be labelled a boy genius early in your film career in Hollywood can be both rewarding and a curse especially if you are mentioned in the same breath as commercially successful filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. With the failure of ‘Lady in the Water’, what many had suggested was a popular media backlash against Shyamalan has proven to be totally false when you consider how his most recent film, ‘The Happening’, in no way stands up to the originality and brilliance of his first few perfectly judged mainstream films. ‘The Happening’ is a haplessly misconceived piece of cinema, failing disastrously to generate any kind of sympathy whatsoever for the main protagonists, and sadly joining the company of ‘Lady in the Water’, another poorly executed and misjudged Shyamalan film. On reflection, ‘Lady in the Water’ is a much better film when compared to ‘The Happening’, a film that seems confused about what it is trying to say about contemporary western society even if it is an eco friendly message that is better witnessed in a trashy 50s science fiction film.

In 1999, Shyamalan made a real splash with the audaciously clever Bruce Willis psychological thriller, ‘The Sixth Sense’, achieving with great immediacy international recognition for an intelligently constructed mainstream genre film that showed little contempt for an audience which helped to make the film into one of the highest grossing films of all time, and perhaps the greatest ‘sleeper hit’ of all time. Unlike most film makers, Shyamalan was able to quickly prove that ‘The Sixth Sense’ was not merely a one off, and ‘Unbreakable’, his take on the comic book/superhero narrative was widely well received by many critics confirming his convincing talents as a superior Hollywood filmmaker. His third film, ‘Signs’, a supernatural science fiction hybrid, this time starring Mel Gibson, gave Shyamalan his third hit film in a row, and cementing his position as one of Hollywood’s most exciting, inventive and genuinely creative auteurs. ‘Signs’ was a much bigger success story at the box office than ‘Unbreakable’, and provided Mel Gibson with the biggest hit of his career, grossing in excess of $400 million worldwide.

Like Spielberg with whom he has always unfairly compared, Shyamalan shares a considerate and economical approach to Hollywood filmmaking by repeatedly bringing his films under budget, adhering to a storyboard structure, and most importantly, knowing how and at which point in the narrative to manipulate the spectator’s emotional response. The awe and wonder of cinema as a spectacle is an aspect of filmmaking that continues to fascinate directors like Shyamalan who revels in the notion of borrowing elements and techniques from Hollywood cinema. Though you could say that much of Hollywood cinema is deeply sentimental in many respects, Shyamalan’s films are shot with a minimalism and stillness that is identifiable in the work of European film auteurs than Hollywood directors. Undeniably talented, Shyamalan is a rarity when compared to filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese and Ridley Scott because he not only directs, he produces and writes his own films, a burden that not many filmmakers want to take on today in fear of having to accept complete responsibility when a film fails critically and commercially, which was the case with ‘Lady in the Water’. Many critics have suggested that Shyamalan should find a suitable co-writer but such a suggestion seems baffling when you consider that Shyamalan’s great strength and uniqueness as a filmmaker comes from his ability to be a complete and total artist.

After ‘Signs’, came ‘The Village, another psychological thriller, but this time critics were split in their reaction towards the film, with many criticising the poorly conceived premise and though the film did well at the box office, it was the first time that Shyamalan had made a movie without a major A list Hollywood star, and it was also the first time Disney felt disappointed with the final box office takings. The young magician and wonder kid had finally fallen from his perch, and though he was still one of the most bankable filmmakers in Hollywood, Shyamalan’s invincibility had finally passed, almost creating the necessary conditions in which film critics would flourish to wreck the commercial prospects of his pet project, ‘Lady in the Water’, a dark underrated adult fairytale.

His most recent venture, ‘The Happening’, is a co-production between UTV Motion Pictures (a powerful Bollywood film studio) and 20th Century Fox. ’The Happening’ has currently grossed $135 million worldwide, and when measured against the incredible success of his first four films, ‘The Happening’ has clearly underperformed at the box office, perhaps indicating how the film’s poor critical reception has affected the commercial possibilities of what should have been a potential blockbuster. Mark Whalberg’s range as an actor is somewhat limited and though he has got better as a performer, he still finds it difficult convincing audiences of his ordinariness, a quality that Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson are able to exude in abundance and with great assurance, something severely lacking in the bemused and unemotional face of Mr Whalberg who has been miscast in the film. The casting problems don’t stop quiet their as John Leguizamo’s presence in the film seems like a complete mystery to everybody involved. It is as if he has been digitally edited into the film’s opening act, playing a character that is sorely underwritten and serving no real purpose other than to annoy us with his strangely shaped spectacles and inarticulate mumblings.

The obvious 9-11 context with Shyamalan opening the film with an extended and intriguing sequence in New York is well handled and shows great promise, but once the city begins evacuation, the narrative loses focus and never allows room for characters to develop. Shyamalan is more concerned with getting quickly to the next suspense based sequence and this means having to sacrifice character and theme for temporary moments of melodrama. This is an ‘end of days’ film with an apocalyptic vein running throughout but it goes over ground that has already been covered countless times by recent Hollywood films like ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘War of the Worlds’. The theme of humanity destroying the environment, and nature retaliating with chilling mechanism of self-defence is hugely topical and the environmentalist ideology is redundant in a film with a meandering narrative.

Shyamalan has not worked with a major Hollywood film star since ‘Signs’, and if he needs to consolidate his commercial reputation as a filmmaker then his next step must surely be to secure the bankability of a contemporary star like Tom Hanks, Will Smith or perhaps even Bruce Willis. Shyamalan has only made six films, and it would be absurd and dangerous to write him off as a filmmaker as he as yet to produce his best work. Then again, five out of six hit films is not bad for a filmmaker who is still in his mid thirties.

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