Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Shyamalan ding-dong

It all started out so well. After a couple of low budget misfires, M. Night Shyamalan finally exploded into moviegoers' consciousness with his audacious not-quite-debut film The Sixth Sense. Back in 1999, expectations were pretty low for a film whose only marketable commodity was a man who'd managed to parlay an expression of smug self-satisfaction into a Hollywood career.

But despite all the odds, Shyamalan's ghostly tale ended up winning the summer box office battle alongside an even lower-budget horror movie about three student film-makers with a hysterical aversion to foliage. As well as an incredible performance by a pre-teen actor with eyes so large he could have been animated by Studio Ghibli, the film boasted a genuinely surprising twist ending that blindsided its audiences.

Admittedly, the denouement was a little disappointing for me, having diligently avoided any spoilery reviews, only to pick up the soundtrack CD and see that the final track was called 'Malcolm is Dead'. Imagine if, instead of covering 'The Crying Game', Boy George had presented Neil Jordan with a song called "My Girlfriend's Got a Cock". Nonetheless, the careful plotting, interesting dialogue and exceptional performances were a million miles away from horror convention. Shyamalan was able to evoke a sense of fear from a handprint on a table, rather than cramming an agitated cat into every available closet.

His follow-up, Unbreakable, attempted a similarly melancholy approach to the superhero movie, with Bruce Willis once again mooching around in a long coat, like a man who'd forgotten to submit his tax return. Signs was no happier, this time applying the director's now patented downbeat technique to the alien invasion genre. Audiences were keen to get a glimpse of the little green men, only to be treated to innumerable scenes of ex-priest Mel Gibson asking people to stop calling him 'Father'. Would he have preferred 'Sugar Tits'?

Put it down to the law of diminishing returns, or the perils of increased expectation, but each successive film seemed to score a little bit lower with the critics. They accused him of being a one-note egotist, which might be OK if it weren't such a low, bassy rumble of a note.

By the time The Village came along, audiences were losing their patience. This time, the set-up was contrived, the performances over-the-top (don't bother taking a bow, Adrien Brody), and the twist as ridiculous as sending a blind girl into the forest to get help. It seemed as though Shyamalan's Midas touch was turning everything into pyrite. Then came the double whammy of Lady In The Water and The Happening. Take your pick - do you want to see Paul Giamatti cleaning a pool, or Mark Wahlberg trying to outwit a plant? It's like some kind of twisted Sophie's Choice, where Meryl takes the bullet herself, rather than suffer the lesser of two evils.

After a decade of perpetual disappointment, it looks as though the fans have had enough. A new website has been set up by a bunch of disgruntled movie-goers asking for donations, in the hope that enough money can be raised to send M. Night back to film school. The site explains: "Certainly, there must be 150,000 of us film lovers out there who are tired of his schlocky plot twists, canned dialogue, and over commercialized image as an 'auteur'. If we all donate just one dollar, we can send M. Night back to NYU so he gets the help we all so desperately need." Given his reputation for surprise endings, it's likely that the sting in this particular tale will involve him turning down the generous gesture. So the site's organisers are also prepared to take whatever money is raised and set up a scholarship in Shyamalan's name for budding film-makers.

Crowdsourcing money to finance M. Knight's re-education is all well and good, but the problem is, he already knows how to make films. And truth be told, he's actually pretty good at it. It's just that he peaked so early, it could only go downhill from there. When The Sixth Sense first opened, critics heralded him as the second coming of Spielberg. Unfortunately, he's following in the footsteps of the director of Hook and 1941, rather than the visionary who gave us Jaws and E.T.

Instead of going back to school, Shyamalan should simply learn to embrace his status as the filmic equivalent of a one-hit wonder. Which isn't to say that his follow ups weren't money-makers - even last year's The Last Airbender managed to turn a considerable profit, despite being about as coherent as Serene Branson's report from the Grammys. He should simply bear in mind that one awesome film is still more than many directors manage in a lifetime. Just ask Michael Bay.

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