Thursday, August 03, 2006

Blue World

The films of M. Night Shyamalan more often have their roots in literature rather than in other films. His latest, Lady in the Water, is no exception: like many of the novels of Gene Wolfe, Peter S. Beagle and Jonathan Carroll, its plot turns on the realisation by its hero that he is an archetype inhabiting a mythic story he can survive only by coming to terms with his true nature.

Lady in the Water’s premise, that the root of human sin is due to a break with the wise inhabitants of the Blue World of water, is rather silly and made sillier by a sententious voice-over that explains it, but its story is simple enough. A water nymph named, er, Story (played by the ethereal Bryce Dallas Howard), has been sent to find the writer she’s destined to inspire, so that he can finish the book that will, eventually, save the world (I’m not giving anything away by noting that the world-saving writer is played by none other than the film’s director). She’s helped by Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), who finds her in the swimming pool of the apartment building where he works as superintendent. With the help of Korean student Young-Soon Choi and her mother, Heap must unriddle the bedtime story into which he’s been plunged, and locate the writer and the other people needed to help Story complete her quest and protect her from her enemy, the hyena-like Scrunt that haunts the apartment building’s grounds.

Most of the plot twists are derived either from the deus ex machina rules of Story’s quest, or from cases of mistaken identity as Heap tries to find amongst the apartment building’s tenants those predestined to help Story. And there’s the rub. M. Night Shyamalan’s best films are driven by conflict between vividly-drawn counterpart characters - ghost and ghost-whisperer in The Sixth Sense; hero and villain in Unbreakable. But since a football team of people are needed to protect and help Story, and there are at least two candidates for every place on the team, there are so many named characters packed into the movie’s 90-odd minutes that there’s little space to develop most of them beyond stock types.

The central characters fare little better. After a strong introduction, Story does little but huddle in the shower and refuse to divulge vital information, and even Cleveland Heap fails to stir the audience’s empathy when he finally realises his true nature and comes to terms with the Hero’s Wound that drove him to hide away from the world in a modest job in a modest apartment building. The Scrunt provides several good shock moments, there’s plenty of typically crisp dialogue and clever ideas, and there’s fine comedy relief from Young-Soon’s obtuse mother and an acidulous film critic (a nice cameo by Bob Balaban). But Shyamalan’s failure to develop strong central characters leaves the mechanics of his plot and the paint-by-numbers symbolism of his story overly exposed. For a movie that promises world-changing events, Lady in the Water ultimately feels as hermetic as the bubble of water in a snow-globe.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a pity!
I very like Shyamalan`s work - he is an artist. He gives a touch of magic to the stories that (if it would be works by other director) may seem simple and banal - you could retell the plot of "The Signs" or other his movies in 3-4 sentences. And yet the movies were beautiful. А kind of meditation.
Probably new movie is a sign of crisis in his ideas?
Let`s give him another chance...

August 04, 2006 5:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just came home from watching it and enjoyed it a lot. I felt the audience had great empathy for the protag in the scene you're talking about. I know that I and my movie going friend were quite moved by it.
I thought it a nice change from Shamalyan's usual overly twisted endings.

August 05, 2006 4:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In case you haven't bumped into it yet, Jonathan Carroll writes one of the most interesting (and often profound) daily blogs on the internet.

Seth Greenberg

August 05, 2006 9:04 am  

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